In the weeks leading up to Halloween, my husband and I watch scary movies. We like old-fashioned ghost flicks, psychological thrillers, or anything with a genetically modified animal. We keep things campy or spooky. No hard-core slasher films or extreme torture. We usually try to view at least one classic film, something of quality. It’s meant to be fun, a nice diversion on a fall weekend. But it wasn’t as much fun this year. Not for me.
This past weekend we watched A Clockwork Orange. I had forgotten how graphically the violence—the ultraviolence—is portrayed. The movie is packed with full-frontal rape scenes and phallic images sprouting from every surface. The female form is scattered about as furniture—a place to set your drink or fill your glass or mash out your cigarette. I’ve never been the sort of person who recoils from violence or depictions of depravity in books or movies. I don’t seek it out, but I’m not naive. The world can be a violent place and there’s no point pretending otherwise. Yet I found this movie—a film I’ve seen at least three times before—hard to watch. A movie about a group of young men who feel most alive while committing senseless acts of violence, seems less like futuristic fantasy and more like modern realism.
When the news is filled with stories of powerful men systematically assaulting, harassing, and abusing women, I don’t need to watch a fictionalized account of that behavior writ large. Nor do I need to watch women portrayed as helpless damsels, as was the case in the 1963 movie Carnival of Souls. In this super trippy story, a young woman miraculously survives a car wreck and begins to see visions of the dead. We’re led to believe the young woman in question is of dubious moral character. She takes a job as a church organist, but she doesn’t buy into the spiritual calling of the work. “It’s just a job,” she says several times, as men look at her with pity and disapproval and, of course, lust. These men are always touching the woman, ostensibly to steady her nerves or provide comfort, but I found myself shouting at the screen: Get your hands off her! These men were not intended to be the monsters in this movie, but they were monstrous. Over the course of the short film, the woman is alternately portrayed as a prude, a tease, a loose woman, a cold fish, and an hysteric. Really, it’s a lot of ground to cover in an 80 minute movie. I think there was some sort of moral point to the story, but I couldn’t grasp it through the scenery chewing.
It’s the same way I felt when we watched the first episode of The Deuce, the HBO series set in the burgeoning Times Square porn industry of the 1970s. Created by the team behind The Wire and featuring the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal, I should have loved it. I didn’t. There were too many sordid scenes of violence and degradation. And to make matters worse, James Franco is at the center of the series with two full storylines. The one-actor-as-twin-characters bit has been done to death and I’m not sure why one man gets to play two roles in a show about the exploitation of women. I’ve got nothing against James Franco, but he doesn’t have half the acting chops of Maggie Gyllenhaal or many of the other women in the cast. This is just one more way women get screwed in the world of The Deuce. I have yet to watch a second episode.
I don’t need to watch movies or shows where men leer at women, or use them for pleasure or profit. There are too many real life examples of this behavior. From a geriatric former president making bad jokes and grabbing women’s asses at photo shoots to the current pussy-grabbing occupant of the White House, we’ve grown accustomed to this behavior from men. We expect it. We have spent years looking the other way and providing cover for monsters who deserved to be unmasked. Why? Because the monsters were talented? Because they amused us? Because they were charming? Because they didn’t look like monsters?
This is the real horror. We have too long indulged the idea that women are fair game and men are natural predators. And, as in every horror movie, most of us are in denial. We say we don’t believe in ghosts or in monsters, but what we mean is that we don’t believe in ghosts and monsters that look just like us. To kill them is to kill a part of ourselves. And that’s the scariest notion of all.
Who needs horror movies when we’re living in monstrous times?