The female fear factor

Times Staff Writer

The infrared cameras caught them.

The girls screamed. They covered their eyes. They squirmed, scrunched down in their seats or grabbed the kid next to them, seeking protection from the horrors unfolding on the big screen.

When the movie ended, one young woman left the theater shaking uncontrollably.

This, the studio’s marketing gurus knew, was a sure sign of success.


“I have to see this movie again, and next time I have to bring two guys,” she told the studio’s researchers at the end of the sneak preview. “I need one on either side.”

Illustrating a continuing trend that defies conventional wisdom, on the opening weekend of New Line Cinema’s remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” women younger than 25 made up the majority of the audience.

With the help of this demographic, the $9.2-million-budget picture has grossed more than $68 million at the box office and has been at or near the top of the charts for the last three weeks.

Young women also made up half, if not a majority, of the audience for such successful spine-tinglers as “The Ring,” “Scream,” “Jeepers Creepers 2,” “Final Destination” and “Identity.” Even horror spoofs like the megahit “Scary Movie 3" had an audience that was 50% female.


While female fascination with horror can be traced back a couple of centuries, at least to the Gothic novels, it is hitting new heights today as young female horror fans increasingly drive Hollywood’s creation and marketing of scary movies. The casting in these films of popular young actresses, such as Jessica Biel in “Texas” and Christina Ricci in Dimension Films’ upcoming werewolf movie, “Cursed,” is calculated specifically to help studio marketers sell their movie effectively.

“You would think they would be the last audience to be excited about a scary thriller or a horror movie,” said Sony Pictures Entertainment’s head of marketing, Geoffrey Ammer. “They are the first audience.”

Invigorating the genre

No marketing decision on these horror films is made without considering how to attract girls and women younger than 25, added Russell Schwartz, head of marketing for New Line Cinema, which distributed “Texas.”

“This young audience has been such a boon to movies over the past five years,” he said, noting that “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” reinvigorated the genre and introduced it to a new generation of girls. “They can go in groups on a Friday night.

“It becomes a pack thing, the same way an action movie is a pack thing for guys.”

Female support has revolutionized the genre, concurs horror filmmaker and novelist Clive Barker (“Hellraiser”).

“Women have changed the genre just by the way they have viewed it, by the pictures they have supported and pictures they have not supported,” he said.


Thirteen-year-old Elissa Carfagna remembers watching her first horror film, “Leprechaun,” when she was 6 years old in her older brother’s room with a group of friends.

She has seen “The Ring” seven times and can recite lines from the movie. (The remake of a Japanese chiller ended up grossing $128 million domestically while costing DreamWorks about a quarter of that to make and market. A sequel is in the works for next year.)

Carfagna and her friends even went on a search for the original Japanese version of “The Ring,” called “Ringu,” at an art house video store in their suburban hometown of Glendale, Ariz. The subtitled Japanese thriller was the featured attraction, in addition to foosball and nachos, at her friend’s 13th birthday slumber party.

To Carfagna, there is something therapeutic in being scared. It is also a communal activity where she can hold hands, scream and grab her friends without anyone thinking she is weird.

“You have a reason to go with your friends because you are scared,” she said. “You can be close to somebody when you are scared. I don’t like the gore, [but] I don’t really mind the violence because it’s part of how it’s scary....

“I think it’s the part of the thrill and the adrenaline that comes with it.”

It is the same kind of adrenaline rush that comes from riding a roller coaster, said Glen Gabbard, professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and author of “Psychiatry and the Cinema.”

“What happens in a horror movie is that they tap into anxieties that are very much present in adolescence,” he said. “A teenage girl watching this can see some of her anxieties on the screen at a safe distance.... That fright in the movie theater is followed by an immediate laughter and release of ‘I’m OK.’ ”


These movies allow a safe way of dealing with the real threat of violence against women, said Patricia Leavy, a sociologist and pop culture scholar at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass.

“In reality, women are most likely to be the victims of violence,” she said, noting that in these horror films the females are often attacked but then turn the violence on their male/monster predators.

“It’s a form of escape, of looking at something that is an epidemic and looking at it as a form of entertainment.”

Is it exploitative, as some feminists have contended for years?

“The shortest route to getting that audience is to put Jessica Biel in a tank top,” she said. “If you mix sex and violence, you are sure to get a crowd.”

Beverly Gray, who worked as a writer and producer for producer Roger Corman, said she sees these films as female empowerment tales.

“The young female lead [faces] the dangerous, though sometimes sexually enticing, male head-on and triumphs, bloody but unbowed,” she wrote in an e-mail exchange. “No wonder young female moviegoers find such films appealing.”

For the horror movies to strike a chord with young females, the lead must be a strong, take-charge character, said Bob Weinstein, chairman of Dimension Films, which released and marketed the “Scream” and “Scary Movie” franchises.

“The female audience wants to see a female heroine,” he noted, but women serve a dual purpose. “From a filmmaker’s point of view, who else but a female seems more vulnerable?”

The mother of all vulnerable but strong horror heroines was Ripley, many observers believe.

Sigourney Weaver’s fierce, sweaty, alien-fighting astronaut in Ridley Scott’s 1979 “Alien” changed the gender roles in horror thrillers forever, said Barker.

Twentieth Century Fox’s head of production at the time, Alan Ladd Jr., suggested that the filmmakers change the lead to a female, recalled Ronald Shusett, who served as executive producer of the film and co-wrote the story with Dan O’Bannon.

“We thought they should all be equal so you wouldn’t know who was killed next,” he said.

Equal-opportunity killing

Today’s female audience wouldn’t fall for the helpless, dim-witted, curvaceous female who “tripped in the forest or went into a dark basement with a faulty flashlight,” Barker said.

“Cinema never leads, it always follows sociologically,” he said. “It is a reflection of what we think. Women were fed up with watching themselves as empty-headed bimbos. They wanted equal-opportunity murder.

“If you were going to murder some cute girl at Camp Crystal, you were going to have to murder some cute boys too.”

Weinstein, who began distributing Barker’s “Hellraiser” movies starting with the third in the series after he launched Miramax’s Dimension Films label, said Barker had to convince him that females should be targeted in the marketing campaign.

“I questioned that,” said Weinstein. “I didn’t realize that women were as big an audience as men. It’s not perception of action or violence” that draws them. “What you are selling is fright.”

“Texas” producer Michael Bay said New Line executives were very wary of the gore factor because girls ordinarily don’t like blood and guts.

They warned him that women would not like the movie unless some of the gore was eliminated. Bay, who had the final cut of the film, says he toned it down a bit but was still “very surprised that they would like this movie that much. There are groups of girls that have seen this movie three times.”

He said he learned something new in his first horror movie venture:

“The girls run the show.”