Every week in The Bloody Truth, Calhoun Kersten digs deeper into one of film’s most subtext-heavy genres: horror. Spoilers ahead.
Horror is a genre that has struggled with its use of female characters since its inception. Usually victims or villains, women have never been accepted as fully-realized characters in the eyes of far too many filmmakers. Certainly, there’s the exception of the “final girl,” as Carol J. Clover calls her. The heroine of the slasher who often achieves heroic status at the expense of her femininity is, more often than not, decidedly boyish in appearance and behavior. So imagine my surprise that 2011’s The Awakening featured Rebecca Hall as a brave young woman in a 1920s-era ghost story.
Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a young woman who has devoted her life to disproving the existence of ghosts since losing her fiancé in World War I. She is commissioned to investigate the death of a young boy at a boarding school, which is rumored to be haunted. The film sounds like fairly standard horror fare, and in many ways it is, but there’s one thing that stands out about the film. Too often horror movies are set in the past to undo modern moviegoers’ complaints, such as why the victim doesn’t simply call for help on their cell phone? It’s not an issue when the movie takes place before the invention of the cell phone. Luckily, The Awakening’s choice of the 1921 London countryside helps with the aforementioned issues, but it also serves a purpose in the film. Early on in the film, Florence Cathcart is understood to be somewhat remarkable, considering she is a young woman who has attended university. Although an unfortunately minor element of the film, The Awakening acknowledges that it is an unusual and particularly lonely position to be an educated woman at that time. Even in the closing moments of the film, part of the rationale for the chaotic turn of events is that she was an educated woman and “women’s minds can’t handle things like that.” It is no coincidence that she is a lonely and unwelcome woman in a man’s world.
However, the film plays with modern conventions of horror as well. As most moviegoers know, the taboos of society apply to the conventions of horror films. One of the most popular examples is the girl who has sex pretty much always dies by the end of the film. Well, The Awakening doesn’t completely undermine this idea, but it does dare to give its heroine a love interest: one whom she admittedly has sex with in the third act. Still, this is not a guaranteed death sentence; instead it has some emotional resonance. Most of the film deals with the emotional repercussions of the Great War, an unusually somber topic for a modern horror film, and the losses that people faced as a result of it. For Cathcart, the significance of the sexual relationship is her finally moving on with her life and forgiving herself for everything that happened with her fiancé. It isn’t gratuitous or exploitative. Furthermore, it is recognizing its female character as a fully formed and sexualized woman with no repercussions.
Nevertheless, the most impressive display is in Rebecca Hall’s portrayal of Florence Cathcart herself. She is intelligent yet stubborn, fiercely independent yet deeply in need of rescuing. She is a complex character, but when it comes down to it, she rises to the occasion. There is a particular scene which comes to mind, where the character is being assaulted by a man and she is very nearly raped. While she does scream out for her nearest male companion, he’s unable to get to her in time and she is forced to rescue herself. While this is seemingly not a novel concept, in the world of horror it is relatively new, hence the confusion in finding it in a film that takes place in 1921. Then again, that is one of the most compelling elements of the film. The Awakening presents modern ideals and standards in an archaic setting. There is recognition of how out of place these modern feminist values are, but it is integrated into the character herself. Although The Awakening may not be a perfect film, it is at least a compelling gender study.