We spit on your grave: women and the video nasties

The 1980s moral panic surrounding VHS ‘nasties’ may have held pro-censorship Mary Whitehouse in a starring role, but women have been influential in the world of horror in many other ways.

Newspaper headlines from the moral panic created by video nasties in the UK in the early 1980s

Censor is in cinemas from 20 August.

Enid sits, and Enid watches. Just like the protagonist of Prano Bailey-Bond’s electrifying debut Censor, like so many women who examine extreme cinema, I too often find myself in the dark, paying attention, keeping my sensory and gendered responses at arm’s length as I studiously scribble notes.

We’ve been here a long time; not just women critics, but filmmakers, fans and others, drawn to films that conventional wisdom still deem fundamentally unladylike. From Lois Weber to Germaine Dulac, women in horror have long been hidden in plain sight.

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

Revisiting John Martin’s book Seduction of the Gullible: The Truth Behind the Video Nasty Scandal from a gender political perspective, then, a curious alternative history is revealed. Of course, it’s hard to tell the nasties story without Margaret Thatcher and the vocal conservative pro-censorship activist Mary Whitehouse, but looking in the margins, the history of gender and the nasties may not be so clear-cut.

Many women were undeniably outraged, but not all were aligned with the buttoned-downed policy-and-PR-driven Whitehouse. In January 1983, a group identifying as Angry Women smashed windows and fire-bombed West Yorkshire video shops, their fury forged in the inferno sparked by the Yorkshire Ripper murders.

While implementing different approaches to activism, Angry Women and Whitehouse at least shared a common enemy, but even then there were fractures. In May 1983, Whitehouse rallied against a proposed Channel 4 broadcast of Vivien Morgan’s feminist documentary A Gentleman’s Agreement?, which critiqued the home video industry. Without having viewed it, Whitehouse was convinced it would include her detested nasties, and should accordingly not be screened (she was right; it featured clips from films such as 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave). Whitehouse fought against the broadcast but lost, and it aired the day before Thatcher was returned to power in the 1983 election.

Scanning Martin’s book for women’s stories discloses a complex, contradictory terrain, forbidding a simplistic gendered reading of Whitehouse’s draconian pro-censorship position.

To be fair, even for their female fans today, it’s difficult to deny that these films are frequently aggressive and excessive in their representations of violence, especially in terms of the physical and sexual torture of women. It is unsurprising, then, that at the time many women aligned with Whitehouse’s agenda; from Lynda-Lee Potter at the Daily Mail to Fidelma Cook at the Sunday Mail, pearl-clutching female journalists were not rare.

But simultaneously, Maureen O’Connor at the Guardian and Polly Toynbee at the Times presented opposing views. A number of women viewed the nasties through not the lens of ethics, but taste: Marjorie Bilbow at Screen International, for example, even predicted Romano Scavolini, of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain fame, would one day be as revered as Hitchcock (spoiler: he wasn’t).

We dig deeper, and find even more women. It seems that for every Dr Lynn Drummond – a psychiatrist who told the Daily Mail in 1989 that “horror films can trigger off a rare mind disease” – there may be a Jacqueline Perry, the barrister who defended a video-store owner who had had tapes seized by police.

Sifting through video nasty filmographies, many women were involved in their production, too: Allison Louise Downe wrote Blood Feast (1963), Renee Harmon and Celeste Hammond received writing credits on Frozen Scream (1981), Suzanna Love co-wrote Boogeyman II (1982), Stacey Giachino co-wrote and produced The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982), Ruth Avergon wrote and co-produced Night School (1981) and Karen Grossman was the director of photography of The Slayer (1982).

Snuff (1976)

And women directed video nasties, too. Although the notorious Snuff (1976) is often solely credited to Michael Findlay, his then-wife Roberta – a notorious grindhouse figure in her own right – is commonly considered the film’s co-director. Beginning as a crude Manson-sploitation film called The Slaughter, the faux snuff coda was added years later by distributor Allan Shackleton, who promoted it as a ‘real’ snuff film. Lesser known but just as fascinating is Nettie Peña’s video nasty Home Sweet Home (1981). A sweaty, low-budget slasher about an escaped “mental patient” on PCP, Peña delights in gruesome murder vignettes and equals her male peers when it comes to guts and gore.

Findlay and Peña were pioneers of extreme horror, which has since become a global affair. From Japan’s Fujiwara Kei to Russia’s Svetlana Baskova, we now find extreme movies such as Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born (2020) and Dasha Nekrasova’s recent The Scary of Sixty-First.

And just as women make shocking movies, so too will women write about them. The legacy of writers Michelle Clifford and Mikita Brottman is strong, as is the groundbreaking work of Kier-La Janisse.

Women and horror more generally have been celebrated by collectives like The Final Girls and Alison Peirse’s award-winning book Women Make Horror: Filmmaking, Feminism, Genre (2020), and when it comes to extreme horror cinema specifically, the current wave of female critics are too numerous to name, but include Samm Deighan, Anya Stanley, Virginie Sélavy, Alexandra West, Zoë Rose Smith, and the mother superior of extreme-film criticism, Kat Ellinger.

But we’re not there yet. Women may be emerging from the shadows, but is that enough to defeat the long-held assumption that we are interlopers in the supposedly male terrain of horror and extreme cinema? The answer is clear: hell yes. The power of Enid compels us.

Further reading

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