Virtual Reality Can Change the Way We See Genders and Horror Movies; Here’s How
Virtual reality will now allow you to experience being tortured to death by a lovesick robot. Or at least, that’s how Road to VR’s Paul James, who recently tried out Abe VR on the Oculus Rift, makes it appear, Abe VR is a first-person adaptation of a 2013 horror short, centered around a robot whose programming drives him to kidnap beautiful women who don’t reciprocate his affection. As a film, Abe is a well-produced but thin 7-minute villain’s monologue from a sociopathic C-3PO. As a VR experience however, it reveals a curious new twist in the way we’ve been thinking about cameras, fear, and gender for decades.
Horror films, perhaps more than any other genre, are about a camera’s gaze: the watcher in the darkness, the unsuspecting target, the helpless viewer who sees it all unfold. A book-length analysis of how that gaze falls on different genders can be found in Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws, published in 1992. The book responded to a common perception of horror (and particularly slasher) films of the ’70s and ’80s as misogynistic invitations for men to torment women by proxy. Clover instead suggested that slasher films make largely male audiences identify with the surviving “final girl,” both narratively and cinematically. Seminal slasher film Halloween for instance opens from the killer Michael Myers’ point of view, but by the end, we’re hiding with Jamie Lee Curtis in the closet.
As many artists have discovered, virtual reality has the ability to make the question of perspective incredibly literal. While Abe’s final girl suffers a fairly grim fate, there’s no ambiguity in who Abe VR wants you to identify with: you’re given a first-person view through her eyes, along with what James describes as a “reasonably convincing female torso.” The result, according to him, was a very real change in how he perceived the robot’s motivation.
Despite Abe’s obviously terrifying intent, listening to him recount his unfortunate story previously brought about fleeting feelings of empathy, sometimes, even sympathy. In VR however, things are quite different when you are the virtual target of Abe’s ‘affections’.
Not every VR horror tale relies on physically embodying a protagonist. But here, the pathos-laden narrative of Abe’s tragic robo-serial killer, a masculine figure literally hardwired with uncontrollable desire is, is upset, thus forcing viewers to consider the female character as an extension of themselves rather than just a decorative victim.
As Clover noted back in 1992, perspective-switching isn’t enough to empower. In film, the final girl standing is a way for men to vicariously experience helplessness, but that is only because we consider helplessness the domain of women. Or, as Clover writes: “abject terror, in short, is gendered feminine, and the more concerned a given film is with that condition … the more likely the femaleness of the victim.” Abe, as a concept, twists itself in circles to establish female victimhood. In real life, as well as fiction, affectionate robots are almost invariably feminine and often designed to serve men, horror cinema however calls for a masculine creature that preys on sexualized young women.
VR Gives Us An Unprecedented Ability To Play With Perspective
Video games is probably the one medium that has truly turned these kind of horror stereotypes on their head. Protagonists who are, whether male or female, all outmatched and afraid define the incredibly popular survival horror genre. Frictional Games, a Swedish horror studio, writes men with fear built into their core mechanics: while one character has panic attacks when he looks at enemies, another starts to hallucinate when left in the dark. Whilst both give players agency, it’s filtered through a digital body that is both specifically male and viscerally terrified.
Virtual reality, however, offers an unprecedented opportunity to mix film and games, with the help of a technology that many people still find scarily immersive. The Kitchen, a PlayStation VR demo from Japanese game studio Capcom is one of the most cathartically creepy virtual reality experiences yet. Even though it was rumored to be a test for a new Resident Evil VR game, it is presented much more like a short horror film, and one that inverts Abe’s gender roles. Players with a male body stuck in a blood-spattered kitchen chair are terrorized by a demonic girl who violently cuts off their only chance of escape, attacking them with a knife that Clover would undoubtedly interrogate for phallic symbolism. For real life females, it’s a chance to experience first-person horror without the tacit assumption that your gender makes you somehow uniquely vulnerable — you were just in the wrong haunted house at the wrong time.
While it’s not revolutionary to make people “really understand” women getting hurt, it’s unarguable that Abe VR invokes the “female gaze,” something that’s often treated as a great equalizer. One of the other authors quoted in Clover’s book points out, with grim pronouncement, that “woman’s exercise of an active investigating gaze can only be simultaneous with her own victimization.”
But, in the same way that the interactivity of video games has offered us new ways to identify with and relate to characters, the manner in which virtual reality can make us conflate our physical and digital bodies offers opportunities we’re just beginning to explore. It’s high time we made the most of them.