“I like you,” she says.
She is a somewhat out of place young woman in a bar named Lily. He, who she looks imploringly at while repeating that she likes him at various intervals, is Clint, who is recording the nights events with the camera glasses he’s wearing. It is from the perspective of these glasses that we’ll see the nights events unfold. Just as Lily stands out from the rest of the women at this bar, appearing awkward and quirky, Clint’s faux nerdy appearance and lower body mass differentiates him from the jock fuck-boys with whom he is friends. We’ll find out that Lily is very much not like other girls, whereas Clint is exactly like his friends; we’ve seen moments earlier that they make a habit of filming women without their consent in a perverse kind of male bonding, and that is exactly what Clint intends to do on this night.
Amateur Night is one segment in the horror anthology VHS (2012), for which different directors have created different found footage short films. Thematically and stylistically different, they are united by their adherence to the found-footage paradigm in which the recording device is an acknowledged and explained part of the narrative universe. Many found footage films do this by imitating the societal norm of recording one’s day-to-day life (holidays and so on) or playing to the long-held suspicion that recording devices might reveal the supernatural. Amateur Night is unique in that it imitates the violation of one’s autonomy through technological means. Rather than watching someone’s happy snaps that managed to capture an unfolding horror, we begin with something intended to be exploitative.
Beginning from exploitation is a bold but natural move in a genre with such strong ties to it, just as taking the form of non-consensual porn is at home with the misogyny of which the horror genre is accused. The difference is that in Amateur Night, the male gaze and masculine sexual violence is juxtaposed with something much more frightening – unrestrained female desire. I say juxtaposed because there is only a slight moment in which these desires meet – when Clint’s friend Shane attempts to initiate sex with a responsive Lily. However, Lily only seems to truly desire Clint, and in his absence, the moment quickly descends into chaos. Other than this moment, the desires of the men and Lily’s desires are almost parallel, inconsequential to each other.
It’s commonly thought that horror and sex, or violence and desire, are a man’s domain, evidenced from Hitchock echoing Sardou’s advice to ‘torture the women’ in film, horror theorists such as Brigid Cherrie and Rikke Shubart having to justify their own interest in the genre and establish scholarship to attest to women’s presence and engagement with it, not to mention the recent statement from horror heavyweights Blumhouse Productions that the ladyfolk just don’t make horror. I’ve faced this prejudice as a female artist with an interest in horror, often asked to justify my interest in the genre or to make a statement reconciling the (perceived) misogyny of the genre with my status as woman. The implication is clear; a woman’s interest in such material (whether horrific or misogynistic) is novel, if not unacceptable, while a man’s is to be expected. Men intertwine violence and horror with masculinity, ignoring the experience of half of the population. Scholars such as Joel Black conceive of eroticism as being the domain of violation, but how many women would describe the experiences they defined as erotic in terms of violation? And to whose violation are they referring?
Amateur Night is compelling because it touches on these questions, flipping the conventional narratives around men, women and sexual violence on their head. In Amateur Night, we find that women are just as at home in horror and violence as men, if not more so, though the negotiate its terrain differently. For the men, their erotic encounters are bound up in their wilful violation of women’s consent, while Lily’s violence seems borne out of genuine hurt and animalistic impulse. The men are a pack, their underhanded exploitation of women acting as pastime and the glue that holds them together, while Lily tries desperately and openly to ingratiate herself to the object of her affections, resorting to violence only when this fails. For the men, eroticism is shared among them while violence is directed at those they cast as sexual objects, while Lily directs her erotic energy at the objects of her desire and reserves violence for those that wrong her.
Nonetheless, Amateur Night is a film about women’s desire in a world framed by men’s – indeed, we see Lily’s desire through the literal lens that would be used by men to exercise erotic control over women. Just as it plays in the cultural narrative of men’s violence, it also reflects the societal framing of women’s desires – or any sexuality outside the masculine heterosexual paradigm – as monstrous. Where Amateur Night’s dissection of female and male desire is interesting is that Lily is not just a monster; she is a sexual being profoundly lacking in the ability to communicate her desires. Through the male lens she appears both naïve and lustful, inhumanly powerful but oddly endearing.
The Horror Film Wiki describes Lily as “a bit naive as she follows three men to their motel room with little persuasion”, which to me represents a failure to read the text; we know that not only is Lily in no danger of physical violence, but that she is actively pursuing what the men have to offer. We would hardly describe a man as naïve for going home with three willing women; this false framing of Lily’s naivety emphasises that we see sex and violence as men’s weapons and women as their receptacles.
No, Lily’s naivety is shown by her interactions with Clint, in whom she appears to have a genuine, if immature, fixation. Lily parrots “I like you”, as if this is all that it would take, that masculine desire is necessarily receptive to female desire. Her limited vocabulary is a hint at her non-human nature, but also a literal symptom of her inability to express her desires in a way that communicates their depth and that is understood by the men at which she aims her affection; Clint seems politely flattered, if a little weirded out, by the phrase, and certainly doesn’t appear to interpret it as a declaration of desire. She is completely blind to the parameters of (human) masculine desire, chasing after Clint partially transformed after she’s murdered his friends and appearing delighted to be reunited with him at the bottom of a stairwell, where he has fallen and broken his wrist. When he is unresponsive to her sexual advances, she appears to not understand, asking “No like?” – whether she’s asking is he doesn’t like what she’s doing or doesn’t like her (or if she can even differentiate these two things) is unclear - before descending into a fit of sorrow. Her hurt is eventually turned onto her would-be lover, who has managed to get away from her at this point; Lily sprouts wings, recaptures Clint and flies away with him, his glasses falling to the ground and ending the recording.
Lily’s lack of communication skills and her devastation when the object of her affections rejects her advances speaks to the difficulty in communicating desire when it is framed as not for you, of finding the language for your desire when the existence of your desire is denied. Of course Lily fails to understand her circumstance; the cultural narrative is that men are desirous creatures and that any sexual attention should be gladly received. Her monstrousness, while tied to her sexuality, is not the evil seductress we might be accustomed to nor the perverse female sadist, just as her violence is not part of some rape-revenge arc that permits women enact violenve upon men. Sure, we might not feel particularly sorry for Clint and company, and we do feel sorry for Lily as she cries in the stairwell, but this is not the story of an avenging femme fatale, but of a woman restricted by male-centric narratives of desire and the pain she feels trying to assert her desires with no framework to do so. Lily is an example of the emotional consequences when women’s desires are crushed by a society that takes male experience as the totality of sexual expression, her monstrousness borne from these societal norms rather than an expression of them.
The exclusion of women from the realms of desire, horror and sex, and the foregrounding of men’s experiences or interpretation is rife within the horror genre and, to a degree, art that deals with it. Works like Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) are touted as art-horror exemplars, yet the work can be summarised as on object of Fuseli’s sexual frustration over a woman who, from all accounts, in no way returned his feelings. As a woman, it’s pathetic at best, downright creepy at worst. Meanwhile, Ophelia has become beautiful death personified, put on everything from tea towels to terrible murals, yet in the face of how awful a way to die drowning allegedly is and the precedent for drowning to be used as a solution to the ‘problem’ of immoral women, I fail to see the beauty in it. People will revere countless works like this that eroticise the passivity of women, yet when faced with a little stabbing will ask ‘But what about the misogyny?’ Lily’s violence might be more shocking, but Clint’s is much more insidious, and sadly more common. Outright violence is often rare and easy to disavow; the violence inherent in a society that eroticises female passivity and casts them as receptacles for the desires of men is pervasive and often unseen.
It is a hard thing to navigate. Just as Lily possesses great agency that is constrained by the male gaze, my work necessarily exists within a male dominated field within a male dominated society. So far my solution is twofold; to foreground my own experiences and desires in an effort to forge a language that might articulate feminine hunger, and to create spaces of horror, of desire, of violation, where I am at home. If society asserts that horror and desire are a man’s domain, then women must make their own domains, ones in which they might revel while men are othered, which are ordered by the alien logic of feminine desire, or which take the assumed erotic and violent relationships between the sexes and amplify them until they become terrible mirrors from which viewers can’t turn away. With every attempt, I ask - is it your domain now? What about now? What about now? - and hope, just as Clint’s wrong-footedness had him crashing down to Earth, that the discomfort provided to the dominant mindset in these spaces evokes a similar change in perspective.