Picture this: a fledgling pair on their first date, out to a movie. They’re getting pretty snuggly, and not just because one has to reach into the other’s lap to grab the popcorn. It’s clear there’s some attraction here. What kind of movie is on-screen for this date night?
Maybe I watched Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” one too many times in seventh grade, but I automatically think of a horror film as the classic choice for a date. This is ingrained in my mind outside of my own personal experience. I don’t think I’m alone in buying into that trope: boy takes girl out to a horror movie, girl jumps into boy’s lap at first sight of blood, boy proves his manliness, and boom! Instant attraction.
Jarviscity.com’s “5 Reasons To Take A Girl To A Horror Movie” preaches that horror movies are justification for intimacy: “When the girl you’re with gets a little scared she will impulsively cling to you. Leaning into each others shoulder, putting your arms around one another and holding hands is perfectly acceptable.”
There’s undoubtedly a culture of sexism that surrounds horror films and dates. Articles like Smosh.com’s “6 Reasons It’s Great To See A Horror Movie On A Date” boast that seeing a horror movie is a great way for girls to “show you’re not a wimp,” but of course she must make sure her guy knows that “you expect him to defend you.”
As a matter of fact, there are scientific links between fear and arousal. The idea behind the misattribution of arousal theory is that people will mistake certain feelings—heightened sense of fear in particular—for sexual arousal. A study conducted in which two groups of men crossed either a stable bridge or a nerve-wracking, high bridge concluded that the men who were on the anxiety-inducing bridge were more likely to feel attracted to a woman who approached them with questions, mistaking their fear-related symptoms for sexual attraction.
Don’t worry, Jarviscity took this into account: “Guys, when you’re with a girl and you’re holding her close it’s basically on you not to mess it up. Her brain is schematically telling her all the right things that should be working in your favor. Just don’t screw it up by doing something incredibly stupid and you’ll be fine.”
Right. So, it’s great when science can uncover something about the way the human brain works and how chemical reactions in the body can affect personality and emotion. What’s not as great is when that science can be twisted into some sort of near-guarantee that taking your date to a horror movie will lead to attraction, giving you the go-ahead for sexual advances.
That’s how fear and arousal are supposed to work in the audience for the classic horror film: very much focused on the female. What if we take it the opposite way, though, and see how a “feminist” horror film works on males?
If you’ve never seen “Teeth,” the 2007 black comedy film, you are missing out. The focus of the movie is a teenage girl named Dawn, rather unfamiliar with her sexuality and her body, realizing a physical advantage she has when she is sexually assaulted. I’m not going to tell you her weapon of choice, but rest assured, it’s not her mouth. The movie is praised for its feminist depiction of a woman standing up to male violence.
I would argue that the real reason this movie is widely regarded as “feminist,” however, is not because of its empowerment of women. Is it so empowering that Dawn uses sex for revenge and suffering instead of for her own personal enjoyment? Why should sex be the source of power for women?
No, the real feminism in this movie has more to do with the fact that men are victimized. Typically in a horror film, the men are the aggressors. When a woman takes control of her sexuality as Dawn does, she becomes a dangerous figure to men. This is a pretty gross way of observing power and sexuality, but it is nonetheless famous for handing that power over to women—maybe for the wrong reasons.
“Teeth” caters to the fears of the males in the audience in a way that is just as sexist as the typical horror film. The fatal mix-up in the movie is truly the close relationship, again, between fear and arousal; a man becomes attracted to a woman and it ends up being his downfall. Sexism in horror films isn’t reserved for female weakness, but also the danger of female sexuality.
This Valentine’s Day, the link between fear and arousal is a blockbuster issue. The film adaptation of “50 Shades of Grey” rehashed many points of contention that the book ignited upon its publishing in 2011, especially with issues of consent and abuse. “50 Shades” may not be what you think of as a typical horror film, but abuse is certainly horrifying. This film embodies the murky line between fear and arousal, and how that can be both confusing and dangerous.
Our brains and the chemicals in our bodies work in mysterious and fascinating ways. What I’m afraid of is how the research and theory behind fear and arousal perpetuates sexism in horror film audiences, and can therefore act as an excuse for sexism in date culture. Whether or not it’s male or female moviegoers who are frightened, the many shades of gray area cannot be justification for assuming your date wants you.
Aibinder is a member of the Class of 2018.