How Can the Horror Genre Empower Women?

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Aaron Allen is the director of Horror in the Hammer, which organizes the annual Hamilton Zombie Walk and Charity Food Drive as well as Fright Night Theatre: an all-year horror genre film festival and screening series.  This month, Horror in the Hammer have organized a special Fright Night Theatre screening that hopes to will empower both women and men to think critically about the ways in which women are silenced while also helping to empower real and tangible change in our communities. On Friday, August 8th, there is a screening of the Hamilton Premiere of the award-winning Canadian horror film Silent Retreat and donating all net proceeds directly to SACHA in support of its services for survivors of sexual assault and abuse.

silent retreatWe often hear the phrase, “Silence is a virtue.” Nothing, however, could be further from the truth when it comes to the ways in which sexual violence and discrimination take root in our communities. To anyone who has received a message from the dominant culture that she exists to be “seen and not heard,” to anyone who feels misrepresented or marginalized by culture and media, to anyone who has been threatened with physical or sexual violence, then silence takes on an entirely new meaning.  When silence seems to be the only way to cope with trauma and erasure, silence is no virtue. In Tricia Lee’s film Silent Retreat, the social politics of silence crash headlong into the horror genre in a hair-raising and thought-provoking feminist horror film that’s part Stepford Wives and part creature feature. By including Silent Retreat in Fright Night Theatre’s 2014 programme, we hope to create a dialogue about the ways media narratives and media production can empower women to speak out against violence. At the same time, we’re honoured to have the opportunity to help support actual community programs that empower survivors of sexual assault and abuse such as SACHA’s 24 Hour Support Line.

Silent Retreat stars Chelsea Jenish as Janey, an orphaned young woman facing an assault charge. As an alternative to jail, she is sent to a rehabilitation camp for young girls. The doctor overseeing the facility (Robert Nolan) enforces a very strict policy: absolutely no speaking or noise-making whatsoever. No personal items. No direct eye contact with the camp administrators. No contact with the outside world. What looks on the outside to be a rehabilitation camp quickly shows itself to be something far more sinister. Failure to comply, however, is punished not at the hands of the administrators but by the tooth and claw of a dangerous creature that stalks the dense, dark woods. Directed by Tricia Lee and featuring strong female performances, Silent Retreat is a horror film with a social conscience.

It was important for us at Horror in the Hammer to recognize that the horror genre is rarely one sympathetic to feminism. If you look on the surface of what’s been popular in the genre over the last three decades in North America – slasher films, torture films, and home invasion thrillers – it may not appear that the horror genre has anything empowering to say for women.

Women on screen are routinely victimized by misogynistic killers while the violence is often glamorized and sexualized through a distorted male gaze. Where women are depicted as heroes and survivors, gender norms and stereotypes are more or less culturally reinforced. From the output of mainstream Hollywood horror, feminism in horror looks like a bleak prospect. However, that’s just the surface.

Independent filmmakers like Silent Retreat’s Tricia Lee and screenwriter Corey Brown are challenging the conventional male-dominated narrative of horror films every day. By making films about women and women’s issues within commercial and popular genres such as the horror genre, they both entertain and educate, challenging the audience to re-think learned biases and cultural norms. Silent Retreat is not another horror film that silences women; at its core, it is about challenging the silence of female voices. We feel that Silent Retreat is not only a great horror film but a very important horror film. We are thrilled and honored to be hosting its Hamilton Premiere and simultaneously raising funds to support SACHA. We hope that you will join us.

Support of creative women in the horror genre. Support women in Canadian film. And most importantly, support SACHA’s mission to end the silence around sexual assault and abuse.

— Aaron Allen, Director: Horror in the Hammer & Fright Night Theatre

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