BRAVE Column: The Horrors of Sexual Assault

By Anna Verderber. BRAVE Peer Educator

If you’re anything like me, autumn is the time for two things: apple cider and horror movies. There are very few things that I love more than these spooky fall traditions. Every year around this time, I spend my nights curled up in my coziest blankets, a nice warm cup of tea in hand, ready to be scared relentlessly. Yes, autumn is the time for horror.   

However, my love for the horror genre has led me to a haunting discovery. There is a problem in the horror industry when it comes to sexual assault and rape. All too often, a character — typically female — will be subjected to exploitative sexual assault, either to develop another character’s wickedness or to shock the audience. In the event that a character endures this abuse for their own development, the subject is rarely handled with care. 

This excessive use of exploitative sexual assault leads me to ask the question: Should this subject even be used in horror movies? 

I remember the first time I watched Halloween (2007); I was appalled by the use of sexual assault to further Michael Myers’ wickedness. As an avid Halloween franchise fan, the scene felt out of place and disjointed — as if director Rob Zombie only included it to shock and appall audiences. Even worse, the scene stopped as abruptly as it started and was never mentioned in the movie again.  

Many horror remakes have followed this trend of using sexual assault to jolt audiences with surprise. The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Evil Dead (both the 1981 and 2013), The Last House on the Left (2009) etc., all use sexual assault to shock audiences in an exploitative fashion.  

Any movie rated “R,” as most horror movies are, is going to have graphic content in it. My issue is not with the graphic content, but with how the graphic content is being used. Annette Hill’s 1997 research study on audience reactions to ultra-violent movies reported that participants often felt more disturbed when presented with scenes of rape than any other form of violence. One participant even went as far as to say, “I found the rape scene really disgusting and horrible… the rest of it I found ludicrous.” 

One might ask, why can audiences tolerate horror films surrounding other violent topics but not rape? The answer to this would be the paradox of horror. As Lucia Schwartz describes in her comprehensive study on the paradox of horror: “When we consume works of horror, we ‘distance’ ourselves from the scary things being depicted, and this ‘distance’ allows other mechanisms to kick in that lead to an overall enjoyable experience.” Schwartz theorized that people are unable to “distance” themselves from the horror of sexual assault due to the frequency it is found in many people’s lives. Thus, as viewers, the wall that led our brains to psychologically distance ourselves from the horror is knocked down.  

Horror can be complex; it doesn’t have to be exploitative for the sake of being exploitative. The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Scream (1996), Get Out (2017), X (2022) and many more films have all proven that horror films can be insightful and thought provoking. Even if a movie must include abuse, that does not mean the abuse needs to be shown in a graphic fashion. After all, there is a stark contrast between a character facing abuse for character development and a character facing abuse for the sake of exploitation.  

This autumn, as you fondly enjoy films that give you the frights, I encourage all ghouls to really consider what horror films they consume. Exploitation for the sake of exploitation should always be frowned upon, especially with a subject as sensitive as sexual assault.