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October 30, 2015 | Nonfiction

The Fragile Heroine

Shawn Binder

The Fragile Heroine photo

I've always been drawn to the macabre when I want to feel vulnerable and exposed.

Before I had horror films, I had Jurassic Park. I remember sitting on my childhood couch, hands clutching fabric, as the two children in the film pressed their hands and feet onto the glass moonroof of their Jeep, barely keeping the T-Rex at bay. The next week I insisted my mother buy me a pair of desert boots. I lay on the carpet, legs in the air, boots on, trying to capture the fear that Lex Murphy demonstrated. This went on for days; until my mother asked me what I was doing flailing on the floor screaming my lungs out.

“I’m a dinosaur hunter,” I told her, “call me... Tonya,” smacking my lips together and blowing a kiss at both of my parents. My parents conceited for three weeks.

My taste for violence only increased with age. It wasn’t enough to see children almost being eaten by CGI dinosaurs., I needed teen-on-teen carnage. The first horror film I remember seeing was Halloween by John Carpenter. I faked a stomach ache one Halloween and stayed in bed with my head wrapped in my covers. While children were dressing like werewolves and vampires, I was watching a post-coital babysitter being strangled with the telephone she was using to phone for help.

I felt for Laurie Strode. I liked the way she limped, I watched her like a fragile creature limping in front of me, and I liked the way it felt. I spent the next week in my backyard, running around the grass, pretending that my arm had just been slashed open with a kitchen knife, and that if I didn’t bang on every door to the house, a man in a mask would come out of the shadows and claim me as his next victim.

I began having my father take me to every slasher film he would agree to see with me. In Turistas, I got to be gentle and kind Pru, a woman who battles her way out of the black market organ trade in Mexico when the balmy summer weather made it impossible to think about lying next to a pool. In Black Christmas I was Kelli, a slender coed with a penchant for fighting back with fake icicles and strings of Christmas lights.  Every film meant something to me; every female character represented a part of me I was hiding yet didn’t understand: the part of me that was or desperately wanted to be a victim; the part of me that wanted to be victimized and come out stronger from it.

I’ve thought a lot about what being drawn to slasher films means.

I’ve thought a lot about what it is that draws me into slasher films as a gay man. Maybe I am drawn to them because I read about so many queer people being victimized; in a way I am turning to them for survival tips. For a while I thought I had a penchant for gore. The older I get, though however, the more I’m beginning to think it has something to do with relating to the role of the victim.

On June 5th, 2004, in Kingston, Jamaica, Brian Williamson was slaughtered with a machete. As a gay rights activist in a country where it is illegal to be gay, he was a target for his assailant, Dwight Hayden, who used a machete to chop him 70 times. There were no signs that he would be the next person to leave this world. He was simply there one day, then he was gone. There were no credits after this unspeakable act of horror. Five years later a Friday the 13th remake would roar into theaters. The body count was generous, the kills creative. The villain, Jason Voorhees, would also use a machete to claim his barely clothed victims. I sat and watched for two hours in the dark theater, popcorn crumbs covering my collared shirt, as he hacked and slashed his way through the film. I remember eating my entire bag of popcorn, the gore barely tickling my stomach. I remember being annoyed with the young boy next to me who was brought by his father. His sobs mingling in with the screams of the crowd distracted me from my own fears, and set me too much in reality.

With every horror film I watched, I was more drawn to the strength of the female characters who survived. I became fascinated with the fragility of the paper-thin women who were deemed disposable. Both characters represented how I felt about existing in the world as a gay man: having to be bold when holding your boyfriend’s hand in a world that still sees you as “other”, having to be coy and demure so that society doesn’t chew you up and spit you out like hate-crime victim headline on the 10 o’clock news.

There is a well-known trope in horror films called The Final Girl Theory. Originally conceived by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. The theory states that the woman who is last standing in a horror film is the most chaste and pure. She is the one who doesn’t fuck her brains out, or the one who turns down a red solo cup at the kegger that makes everyone else too drunk to run away. She is perfect, she is the star, she is the most fragile.

When I first read Clover’s theory, I was a senior in college and had seen almost every slasher film captured on camera. I was studying Hitchcock films for my senior thesis when I read how in the hey-day of horror films, to stay alive meant keeping your legs closed. At this point I had read enough literature to know this was antiquated, but there was something special about the idea of being the final girl to me. It was alluring to fancy myself as the one who would make it to the end credits of my own story. In my mind, I wanted the best of both worlds: to experience true horror, to be battered, bruised, victimized, but also I wanted the strength to survive. Maybe I had read too many news stories about gay men being beaten to death, maybe I had seen one too many horror film in which the person you were rooting for got her throat slashed in the final scene. Whatever it may have been, I believed if the time came for me to be a victim, I would survive and grow from it. Whatever the fuck that means.

Maybe it means: at any moment you can stop being the star and start being the victim. My time came on a chilly November night.

I was wasted again at Bullwinkles, a local bar that allows students to pay $80 to drink unlimited well-drinks for an entire semester. A boy from my Hitchcock Film class pushed through people and tapped me on the shoulder as I slouched over the bar begging the bartender to stop being so stingy with his pouring. “Shawn! I haven’t seen you in weeks,” he pressed his body firmly into mine, hugging me from behind. Turning to him, I took a long pull from my whiskey coke and narrowed my eyes. He was a handsome man. The type I normally fucked, but he was shy, which was a turn off. We had been paired together for a group presentation on Psycho and had spent most of our time together in the library, our heads pouring over large film theory texts, without a word spoken. This night, however, he had little trouble finding words-probably a result from the double vodka tonic he held in his hand.

“Where are your friends?” I asked

“They….I think...they’re gone? I don’t know where I am,” he said to me with a soft smile. He stayed by my side for the next hour, trying to weave his hand into the small of my back. It felt exciting to me, having someone who barely spoke to anyone suddenly fawn over me. In that moment, I was the star. I felt safe.

When he tripped over a small rock on our way out to the parking lot where our cab would pick us up, it became clear he wasn’t able to drive.

As I piled into the cab that would take me and my friends home, I held out my hand to him, inviting him in. Maybe it was the stain that looked suspiciously like vomit on his shirt. Maybe it was that I felt his hunger for my body and that the hunger made me feel as light as a piece of rice paper. Or, Maybe it was the line of coke I had done twenty minutes earlier off my friend’s house key. I can’t remember now, some of the details are too soaked in alcohol to stick, but our outing ended with my group of friends and my drunken tag-along friend and me standing in my friend’s bedroom.

The tag-along told us he needed air. I went to the bathroom to rinse my tongue with mouthwash, to rid it of the whiskey and cigarettes that had mingled with my friends’ tongues as the four of us made out in the backseat of our ride. As I stepped out of the bathroom I noticed my friends standing by the front door, watching the tag-along retch vodka onto the driveway.

The three of us went to the bedroom to figure out how to get our plastered new friend home. I told them it was my responsibility, since I was the one who invited him back with us. I felt sorry for him, abandoned at a bar by his friends. I was just about to call out to him, to let him know that as soon as I sobered up I would drive us both home, when he stumbled in, a crooked smile set on his face. His eyes were afraid but his brows betrayed him, showing me just how lustful he felt. He charged at me, the full weight of his 160lbs slamming into me, causing my head to crack against the bed frame. His breath smelled of vomit as he whispered, “you’re so fucking sexy. I heard you have group sex...”

Rumors had begun to spread about me. That I was easy, that I was weak and hungry and sad; that I was a receptacle for every dick that felt like entering me. Prior to this, I hadn’t really given them much thought. It rarely occurred to me that what I did privately would ever endanger me. Up until this night, I was parading around like I was The Final Girl, but with his hot breath on my neck, my role instantly shifted. With his entire body pinning me down I felt more like the girl who is killed offscreen, not sticking around long enough for the audience to learn her name.

I jerked my body back and forth, which only seemed to excite him more. The smell of his breath staining my purple button-up, his erection stabbing me in my inner thigh. He was strong and I was fragile. For a moment it felt like every slasher film scenario that had ever run through my head was coming to fruition, and suddenly I no longer wanted any of it.

He was strong and so were his lips as they pressed against mine. My wrists bloomed bruises under his hands, but his grip never loosened. He was strong until he was weightless, my friend pulling him off and throwing him across the room in one quick motion. His head slapped against a book-shelf and we all lay still.

After we sobered up, I drove him home. At some point he mumbled “I’m sorry.” Later, after he’d gone, I threw up out of the window. I slept in my bed that night with the lights on, tracing my fingers over the bruises he had left, shivering even with four blankets piled on top of me.

I haven’t seen him since that night, and perhaps it’s for the best. Until I wrote about it, I hadn’t thought much of that night. I had written it off as something weird that happened between a few extremely drunken friends. A mistake of one man that was halted by the friends I was surrounded with.

I bring it up now is because I understand how we all perceive ourselves as the heroes in our own narrative. We operate under the idea that we can learn from other’s mistakes, and in retrospect I think I’ve been searching through horror films for years, trying to find a way to survive until the end. I look at this night and I see two very separate outcomes: the event that happened, and the event that was prevented from happening. I look at this night and I see myself as both the types of women in the horror films I clung to, and I feel grateful for which one I ultimately became. I thought there was a thrill in being a victim, but in reality all I felt were bruised wrists and a sense of unease.

Sometimes when my house is dark and my boyfriend’s snores fill the halls, I will take off my socks and shoes and limp across my kitchen floor. Sometimes I will even practice my silent screams like I am Jamie Lee Curtis pretending to be a babysitter on a chilly Halloween night. I do all this to remind myself there is no glory or satisfaction in being a victim, only the brief and terrifying moment of clarity that you might not be the Final Girl afterall. 

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