Horror movies scare us because they mirror what we fear – even the impossible, such as ghosts or supernatural monsters. But one subgenre of horror films tackles something more mundane: home invaders. The idea of being trapped in one’s house while at the mercy of regular—but sinister—people is terrifying to so many because it’s in the realm of possibility. There are no fantastical elements here, only the ill-will of others. For women especially, these horror movies speak to an everyday fear.
In Michael Haneke’s 1997 movie Funny Games, two young men terrorize a family on vacation. The wife, Anna, is sexually assaulted and forced to watch her son’s murder as part of the invaders’ sadistic game. While the idea of witnessing the murder of a child is horrible for any parent, the threat of sexual violence is held over women’s heads in particular in these movies. The idea of a stranger breaking into a woman’s home and violating her is a threat that the media reports on regularly, whether it be in terms of the news, war zones, or as a theoretical situation in political or safety discussions. Additionally, the two young men in the movie insinuate themselves into the family’s lives through politeness. Women are socialized to be polite and not cause a fuss, which in this movie—and in many real life cases—ends tragically when instincts are not followed for the sake of social niceties.
However, the “final girl” trope could be seen to exist as a power fantasy for women in home invasion movies. In the 2002 film Panic Room, Jodie Foster plays a divorced mother protecting her ill daughter from home invaders by hiding inside of the titular panic room. Jodie Foster’s Meg Altman is not powerless, cowering in the dark with her daughter. She uses the resources that she has available to her to attempt to find help and save her daughter. The movie portrays her as using her motherhood for power instead of weakness.
In the 2011 movie You’re Next, Sharni Vinson’s Erin manages to use her wits and skills to booby-trap a house after she becomes one of the few survivors of a disastrous dinner. This is perhaps one of the more viscerally pleasing, if gory, examples of a final girl turning the tables on her assailants in recent years, particularly when the audience realizes who is behind the whole affair: her boyfriend. Domestic violence is rarely so elaborate, but many women worldwide fear their ex- or current partners breaking down their doors and finding them defenseless in their homes.
In an earlier final girl example, 1967′s Wait Until Dark features Audrey Hepburn as a recently blind woman at the mercy of an assailant in her home. It would be easy to cast her as a simple victim in this role—not only is her character disabled, but Audrey herself looks waifish and lovely as always. But her character Susy uses her disability to her advantage in this role, darkening her home and evening the playing field. In the real world, women who may suffer from limited mobility or other disabilities may have to rely on home security systems instead of clever storytelling, but watching a fellow woman get one over on an invader is satisfying nonetheless.
Home invasions happen daily and are nothing to laugh at, but through media we can explore what it is that we fear in specific about these events and learn more about ourselves. Whether it’s fear of being unprepared, fear for our families, or fear of strangers in masks, we can place ourselves in the position of the protagonists and ask “what if?” from a safe distance.