Black Christmas puts us into the world of the most stereotypical college imaginable, with the plucky protagonist Riley having to fight a cabal of patriarchal frat boys to save herself and her sisters. Thinking back to my own college experience, I don’t exactly find the same kind of Greek-centric world in my memories of NYU, but the constant encroachment of the patriarchal elite of my school were the same in my college days as they are in Riley’s. When Trump was elected less than six months after my college graduation, patriarchy became all the more ghoulish an influence in the world around me, which is really saying something since it was already incredibly ghoulish. Black Christmas is a horror movie with extreme real-life applications then, even for someone like me who has always lived in blue states and gone to liberal schools where I never had to even learn the words to the pledge of allegiance–much less say it in class like some kind of white nationalist cult member (hmmmm). For a woman who went to a fratty school like the Hawthorne University of Black Christmas, or one of its real-life counterparts like Dartmouth, MIT, or Yale (home to more than a few actual secret societies), the beginning scenes of this film must be like watching a documentary.
Most horror movies tend to take a fear many people have (like sexual assault) and make it supernaturally freaky, though some are more low-key about it than others. Much of the time horror uses plot elements like vampirism as a metaphor for homosexuality, or zombies as a metaphor for communism (that may sound stupid, but it’s actually real). Any story about “voodoo,” “Indian burial grounds,” or about a colonized culture’s supernatural tradition in general are usually about white America’s anxiety that the people they’ve oppressed will take their revenge. The witch is a fairly obvious symbol of female power, with the many recent retellings of witchy stories being in direct proportion to the rise of feminism. It’s even said that horror master Alfred Hitchcock made a point of filming love scenes like they were murder scenes and murder scenes like they were love scenes, tapping into the whole sex-death thing to make sex freak people out while making them morbidly long for their own annihilation.
With the political and social climate in mind, the metaphor for Black Christmas is pretty much right out in the open, unlike with much of the horror genre’s greatest hits. The cult of men who target and prey on women at Hawthorne University are only fantastical in the scenes where they use dark magic; the rest of this movie is literally just real life. The leader of the cult boasts that his brothers will go on to do their society’s work in boardrooms, Congress, and the Supreme Court, while we have people like Harvey Weinstein, Brett Kavanaugh, and of course Donald Trump, who have each left a trail of victimized women behind them on their way to the highest positions of power in our country. We didn’t need to create horror tropes to express our fears of patriarchy, because for us patriarchy isn’t in the shadows. In the Trump era more than ever, what we fear is what we see on the news every night.
While some viewers might prefer more veiled horror plotlines like Psycho’s anxieties about homosexuality, the frat bros in the film (and the real world) don’t much bother to veil their monstrosity–and that’s Black Christmas’s point. Much like the just-barely-metaphorical Get Out, Black Christmas taps into the horror that women worry about literally every time they leave their homes, as well as the horrifying lack of concern society shows for their protection. The girls are told over and over again over the course of the story that they should just hide or get off campus to safety instead of trying to challenge the fraternity directly, but the reason the girls don’t listen is that there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide from patriarchy–in the movie as well as real life. A world where women’s voices are as smothered as they are deserves to have stories like this, that scream the truth of what it means to be a victim of rape culture. If rapists can be as shamelessly obvious about their crimes as Trump et al., there is nothing to be gained by being quiet and clever.
This new wave of horror that takes the most glaring injustices of our society and presents them more or less without metaphor has potential for those who were the targets of the more subconsciously directed horror films of eras past (powerful women, I’m talking to you!). Maybe it’s a little extreme to portray men as the villains in every story, but hey–isn’t that what men have been doing to women literally since they wrote the Bible? If making Bridesmaids or nominating Hillary Clinton for the presidency didn’t get the message about women’s liberation across, if Christine Blasey Ford’s story coming out into the open didn’t stop rape culture, it’s clear that what we need is bolder action, not more tasteful criticisms or wittier “gotcha” moments. Black Christmas doesn’t play around with the niceties of “undertones,” it get right to the reality of a world where men try to kill women and women desperately try to defend themselves. If campy violence and snarky song lyrics are what let us speak the truth of how women are victimized in our society, then I guess that’s how the revolution’s gotta be. The one thing I know will not get us to freedom is finding more subtle ways to say that predators need to be held accountable.
© Giorgi Plys-Garzotto FF2 Media (12/28/19)
Photos Courtesy of Blumhouse Productions