There is a woman in a forest. Or maybe on a highway by a cornfield. At the doorway of a condemned building.
And she knows that something is wrong.
She is often accompanied by a date, a boyfriend, maybe a few friends. Maybe they’re kissing. Maybe everyone is drinking. Maybe they’re on vacation. And she abruptly stops having fun because something is off. The air is charged, the silence more silent than usual, the dark is full of eyes. But her boyfriend keeps kissing her, her friends are too drunk, the group wants to break into the shuttered old house. She says no, and she is teased or berated for being a buzzkill. She is weak for insisting that something is wrong, that more caution is called for than they would prefer to exhibit. She is making it harder for her boyfriend to investigate, to prove to her that he is tough enough to keep her imagined monsters at bay. All she wants to do is leave.
Someone (or everyone) dies that night. Of course they do. You knew you were watching a horror movie, so what did you expect?
This is one of horror’s most common tropes, and one that doesn’t presume the same morality judgments as your average slasher film. Horror buffs everywhere know the rules for those films (or Randy from the video store explained it to them back in 1996): Do not have enthusiastic, consensual sex. Do not drink. Do not do drugs. Do not get cocky and assume that you’ll make it back from somewhere spooky-looking. If you do, you’re immoral, sinful kids, and it’s no wonder that a bad masked villain came after you with a knife.
But what about the girl who never wanted to be there in the first place?
Because that young woman is all over the genre too, though she often doesn’t land the lauded “final girl” spot. She is Cheryl in The Evil Dead. (Why are we going to a cabin no one has seen before?) She is in her fair share of Supernatural episodes, right at the opening. (I am not going in there. Please don’t go to check and leave me alone.) She is Barbara in Night of the Living Dead. (Stop reminding me how frightened I am of the cemetery.) There are plenty of variations on this theme, even clever subversions of the trope—Scream relies entirely on misdirecting the audience by using this exact setup, when the person telling Sidney Prescott that she should stop worrying and dwelling on the past turns out to be the very person she should fear the most. There are even non-lethal versions where everyone makes it out just fine: Hocus Pocus all goes down because some teenage boy won’t listen to his little sister when she pleads with him not to light a candle that is meant to release the Sanderson Sisters. Whoops.
These moments are often fleeting, so rote that they’re the subject of parodies and jokes now. Community’s “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps” opens with Britta telling the group one scary story that involves a couple in a car making out, and the man only agreeing to look into the noise his lady friend keeps hearing on the guarantee of sex afterwards. Joss Whedon has made a career of scratching at this veneer; from Buffy flipping the trope of the girl who fears the darkness and instead rushes out to meet it head on, to how The Cabin in the Woods frames these scenarios as part of a larger (and usually unseen) ritual that scientists can script and alter with the flip of a switch. Michael Jackson’s girlfriend in the Thriller music video is told that she shouldn’t be scared of “only a movie,” then proceeds to be terrorized by zombies in a tongue-in-cheek musical homage to this tried and true narrative pitstop.
Horror exists as a genre primarily to reflect the ugly and the despicable parts of our world back at us through a funhouse lens that makes the trauma digestible. Most fans of horror know this and will tell you so; Frankenstein is about the terrifying possibilities that science and technology might visit on us; Invasion of the Body Snatchers told the story of what happened to a world beset by McCarthyism and Cold War anxieties; Get Out has shown us how the racism of white liberals is every bit as menacing as its more vitriolic counterpart. Some of these lessons are cautionary, which explains all the teenaged kids making bad spring break choices. But some of these lessons are simply mirror images of terrors we know all too well—like a girl telling someone that she isn’t comfortable, and being told in response that she’s the worst kind of downer for daring to admit it.
I hate this trope more than anything, perhaps because of its ubiquity. Or perhaps because it asks the most basic question of all, one that our society struggles to answer even to this day:
Why didn’t you believe her?
She told you she heard something, or saw it out of the corner of her eye. She told you she was scared, that she didn’t want to go into that boarded up house or creaky old cabin, that she didn’t want to keep making out, that she didn’t like this corner of the woods. She told you she was scared and you laughed at her. She told you she had a bad feeling and you thought it was adorable. She whined at you and she tugged at your sleeve and sometimes she even begged you to leave it, to just go home deal with it all later. You thought that made her a wet blanket, or worse, a tease. As though that somehow mattered more than the sanctity of her life. Or yours.
But she was right. And you were wrong. And if you had just listened….
Every woman knows what this feels like, they know what it means. They know how hard the world works not to believe them. And this particular narrative device always feels like a pointed jab, a great big spotlight on that precise problem. It doesn’t even matter if it’s intentional—in fact, the idea that it might be unintentional makes it all the more poignant. Filmmakers and scriptwriters accidentally pointing out how women’s fears are never taken seriously, again and again. And why would she have that sense when no one else was bothered? Oh, you know… probably women’s intuition? Women (especially “good” women who aren’t distracted by things like games and alcohol and maybe sex) in movies are excellent at picking up on what others don’t. You know how it is.
But intuition is not a magical power granted to half the population by sheer random happenstance. It’s not the consolation prize you drew because the world calls you a woman. Intuition is an ability built up over time, powered partly by animal instinct, and partly by learning, and partly by experience. Intuition is what happens when you fill up any computer with enough information and allow it to draw conclusions from the patterns it observes. Any human being can tap into intuition, but women are constantly pegged as the humans who own this preternatural ability. Why? Because women are supposed to be on their guard every second of the day. Because our very existence, in the right skirt or pair of high heels, is an invitation to untold abuses. Because we’re not supposed to trust anyone—but we’re supposed to be unfailing sweet to everyone. Women are intuitive because tapping that intuition is something that we are encouraged toward from the day we are born, for the sake of our safety and our lives. Which is where we end up coming to the ugliest question of all:
Why was that intuition on alert in the first place?
Because this little introduction scene, the stage-setter for your next favorite gore fest, is completely dependent on some young woman who walked into this situation scared. And not by monsters that go bump in the night, but by the people that she is keeping company with. She noticed the sound or the shadow when they didn’t, because she already knows to be frightened. The tacit threat is always there; what if she doesn’t want to do what everyone else wants to do? What if he isn’t what he seems? What if getting away from the prying eyes of neighbors and parents and CCTV was a terrible mistake?
And what happens out here in the middle of nowhere if she decides to say no?
Abandonment, for one. Or maybe being left alone outside/inside while the others venture elsewhere. She could be laughed at. Ostracized. Coerced, regardless of her complaints. And of course, there are far worse options that wait at the end of the Why Didn’t You Agree rope. Ones that are never far from any woman’s mind.
So of course she’s the one who notices that something is amiss. It’s not because girls are smarter than boys, or more pragmatic or less brave. It’s because women know that it’s their responsibility to prevent harm from coming to them. Because no one will believe that it wasn’t her fault. Because no one will listen. Because bad things still happen to women who don’t keep their guard up, who don’t carry keys like claws and check the back seats of their cars before getting in. Bad things still happen to women who break rules, even when everyone else seems to be getting away with it.
The truth is, she didn’t need to be more careful. She needed to be heard.
If she dies here it will be a mysterious tragedy, and likely a pit stop on some swarthy male hero’s journey. He will go to her family’s house and ask questions: How long had she been dating Brandon? Did she enjoy school? Were any of the friends in that group new? Was she ever interested in the occult? Sorry, it’s just a routine question. If she makes it and Brandon dies, the police will want to talk to her: What were you doing out there? Why didn’t you check in with your parents? Were you sleeping together? Did you ever quarrel? Answer the question. If she survives, it’s a different kind of trauma that she carries with her. She will hoist it onto her back like an overstuffed schoolbag and tote it wherever she goes, a testament to the fact that all the intuition in the world couldn’t keep her safe.
Seeing it constantly trotted out in front of you, it sticks somewhere in your chest or maybe your throat, like a great big gravelly pill struggling to get down. Watching so many different women do something so reasonable and get ignored entirely, and knowing that this scenario isn’t questioned because it is so entirely familiar. It is mundane. Commonplace.
Horror reflects the world back at us. And this little hook, this oh-so-common point of entry into a world of terrors… it’s really just an unanswered question hanging in midair. It’s a warning for everyone who doesn’t rush out of the movie theater or turn off the television. It’s a message carved into a plinth, sitting off to the side in every strange forest, every damp basement, every remote cabin, just out of sight:
Listen. And believe her.