Early physicians who did not understand female anatomy routinely used ‘female hysteria’ as a potent weapon against women to institutionalize them for illnesses they never had. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the American Psychiatric Association rescinded the usage of the term “hysteria” — from hystera, the Greek word for uterus — as a medical diagnosis. But, “crazy,” “neurotic,” “psychopathic” are still acceptable adjectives to describe women who don’t conform to social norms. These perceptions have wormed their way into mainstream media and inspired cinema, especially the horror genre.
Erin Harrington, in her book Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film, coined the term ‘gynaehorror’ — a genre of horror that encapsulates all aspects of socio-biological womanhood, from virginity, pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood to menopause. Gynaehorror draws on the patriarchal myths of many cultures — from voracious vagina dentate and blood-sucking vampires, to Southeast Asia’s long-haired women, in their whitish, virginal robes — all of which claim to counter women’s mental illness with a miraculous cure, an exorcism or a sacrifice. Ever since the days of the first silent horror film, these portrayals have been a manifestation of grief, death, ostracization, of being subdued, and of many other emotional upheavals that forewarn ‘hysteria.’
But a recent spate of female-led films suggests horror can be a feminist gateway to better understand a woman’s psyche, rather than a tool to cure or repress it. These filmmakers turn the psychological fallout of society’s ephemeral gender norms into somatic, horrifying material that depicts women’s mental health struggles not as innate, but as horrifying damage wrought by patriarchal oppression.