*spoilers and TW: mentions of sexual violence and discussion surrounding it
The world of horror is wildly vast and exciting. From all the sub-genres and a plethora of movies that rattle our brains as fans, there’s always something new to learn about horror. It’s still an under-appreciated genre and quite frankly mocked by the haters. Though we know the truth: Horror is queer and political by nature. Meaning horror often covers the hard topics directly, such as sexual violence.
Now, rape and revenge horror isn’t for everybody. And there’s nothing wrong with needing to avoid that kind of body horror. But what’s strange to do is tell survivors of sexual violence that we shouldn’t watch those films. That somehow it’s glorifying that type of violence. When it’s usually quite the opposite, meaning it’s empowering to see the survivor get revenge. Horror has managed to give survivors that empowerment. Whereas other genres don’t always get it right. A recent example is Promising Young Woman (2021), which didn’t handle the subject matter properly. And instead centered the trauma of a straight white woman, who consistently put herself in dangerous situations on purpose, and wasn’t even the survivor of sexual violence.
Though even with empowerment comes the possibility of being triggered. And many rape and revenge horror is triggering for viewers. Such as films like the original I Spit on Your Grave (1978) or the remakes that came long after it, American Mary (2012), or The Perfection (2018). Then there are the rape and revenge films where the victims aren’t the ones seeking revenge. Controversial horror like The Last House on the Left (1972) or even the 2009 remake (which features an even more gruesome rape scene). In the original there’s no survival for the victims, they are brutalized and murdered. Whereas the remake is still brutal but one of the victims manages to survive. Resulting in the same outcome as the original – her parents seek revenge for her.
The concept of taking back control and reclaiming your body after it’s been violated is a radical act. It’s powerful to experience and to witness in horror. While returned violence is seen as not justifiable to people who have cookie cutter ideals – it’s certainly satisfying to some. I Spit On Your Grave (1978) is a perfect example of someone, a woman in this instance, who reclaims her body. And she uses that power to destroy those who took from her in the first place. It’s a graphic horror movie, but it displays how explicitly political horror tends to be. There’s not a lot of subtext in this movie because it’s direct with its intention.
Unfortunately rape revenge usually is written off as too controversial. Sometimes even banned because of the content (occasionally that’s a good thing as there’s a line between glorification and otherwise). The Last on the Left (1972), written and directed by the iconic Wes Craven, could be seen as too horrific and tragic. Which of course it is tragic and gruesome, but it’s also the otherside to rape and revenge horror. Victims don’t always make it to the end of the film. It’s something that makes people ask: why watch rape and revenge horror that has no payoff? That question can’t be answered the same for everyone. For myself it’s an unfortunate reminder of those who don’t survive. And maybe understanding that truth is just as important.
Vanessa Maki horror fan, writer, and Afro Horror contributor.