Phantom Ladies: Hollywood Horror and the Home Front

Phantom Ladies: Hollywood Horror and the Home Front

Phantom Ladies: Hollywood Horror and the Home Front

Phantom Ladies: Hollywood Horror and the Home Front


Defying industry logic and gender expectations, women started flocking to see horror films in the early 1940s. The departure of the young male audience and the surprise success of the film Cat People convinced studios that there was an untapped female audience for horror movies, and they adjusted their production and marketing strategies accordingly.

Phantom Ladies reveals the untold story of how the Hollywood horror film changed dramatically in the early 1940s, including both female heroines and female monsters while incorporating elements of "women's genres" like the gothic mystery. Drawing from a wealth of newly unearthed archival material, from production records to audience surveys, Tim Snelson challenges long-held assumptions about gender and horror film viewership.

Examining a wide range of classic horror movies, Snelson offers us a new appreciation of how dynamic this genre could be, as it underwent seismic shifts in a matter of months. Phantom Ladies, therefore, not only includes horror films made in the early 1940s, but also those produced immediately after the war ended, films in which the female monster was replaced by neurotic, psychotic, or hysterical women who could be cured and domesticated. Phantom Ladies is a spine-tingling, eye-opening read about gender and horror, and the complex relationship between industry and audiences in the classical Hollywood era.


We begin with a warning. the unholy sights and bloodcurdling chills you will encounter in Phantom Ladies are neither pleasurable nor suitable for refined, feminine tastes. Any unescorted women should turn back now before it is too late. Those who believe they can take it are advised to bring along a group of like- minded female friends or, preferably, a male escort. If you choose to proceed alone, however, you do so at your own peril and against the advice of the house. You have been warned!

Despite, or perhaps in part because of, such promotional hyperbole, American women flocked to see Hollywood horror films during the war. Often alone, sometimes in groups, wartime women defied both the sexist provocations of these “can she take it” exploitation stunts and a whole body of scholarship in not only watching such films but also actively taking pleasure in them. Newspapers reported in 1943 that “according to movie surveys, women are more enchanted by horror films than men.” This concurs with previous research conducted by Mark Jancovich and me into the infamous grind- house cinema the Rialto in Times Square, New York, which almost exclusively programmed horror and gangster films through most of the 1930s and 1940s. While in the 1930s the Rialto was promoted as a masculine space where the discomforting sights and uncomfortable seats were set up in opposition to a feminized, mainstream cinema culture, there was a significant shift in the gendering of its audience during the war. Its manager, Arthur Mayer, reported that, much to his surprise, “feminine attendance started to zoom” in the early forties. He noted not only a . . .

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