Writing by Lucy Scalzo. Artwork by Berenika Murray.
TW: discussions of sexual assault and rape
Demi Moore is covered head-to-toe in blood on the cover of I Spit on Your Grave, the most famous rape-revenge film made during the exploitation boom of the 1970s. Moore is also scantily clothed; white, torn underwear and a blouse which hangs nearly completely off her body, exposing her scarred back. She carries a bloody knife as the poster declares that “no jury in America would ever convict her” for the grisly murder of five men. As the genre title suggests, I Spit on Your Grave follows the highly violent gang rape of Jennifer Hills, a New York writer played by Camille Keaton, and her subsequent murderous revenge.
To the untrained ear, this might excite them to the concept of a feminist, albeit maybe a little tasteless, horror film. After all, who doesn’t love a good Amy Dunne or Jennifer’s Body thing? I Spit on Your Grave is not that. It is an exploitation film; low budget productions which attempt to pick up a specific potent demographic through specific fanservice. Shaft, Dolemite, and Foxy Brown are all characters still within the public imagination which stem from an exploitation sub-genre, Blaxploitation. Producers saw predominantly African American areas of the United States as an untapped market and created these films for a quick buck.
The rape-revenge film’s untapped market was men. Porno theatres still littered Times Square and sex was selling. What is better than pornography? Pornography and bloody murder. Constant entertainment, constantly. Thus, the rape scenes in I Spit on Your Grave weave titillating nudity with grindhouse-esque violence. Once Camille Keaton is stripped of her clothes, she is left to wander the forest completely naked for another twenty minutes before she can attempt to cover herself. After her first attack, Director Meir Zarchi doesn’t even bother to cut back to her face, relying on these long, wide shots of her docile body. Her helplessness is the fantasy as her trudging journey through the woods always leads her back to her abusers. Keaton’s character says little in comparison to other assault scenes put to film. George A. Romero’s Martin features an assault in its opening scene yet Romero purposefully kills all fantasy which could be associated with the moment. The woman, played by Francine Middleton, screams obscenities as the film’s main character, Martin, struggles to hold her down. “Are you some sort of freak rapist asshole? Fucker!” I Spit on Your Grave gives Camille Keaton very little to do in her assault scenes except scream.
The titillation takes a step further in the final thirty minutes as hardened by the events Keanton’s character uses her body to enact revenge. She seduces and kills her violators. Here Zarchi and his team subverts the sexual dynamic to heighten the eroticism. The dominators become subjected, the submissive dominates, role reversal. And within the switch-up we see the classic Femme Fatal trope which extends the experiences that much further. The foreign-yet-exciting sexualized non-consent leads into the familiar hold of the promiscuous, female killer. Director of Ms .45, Abel Ferrara, another well known rape-revenge film with much more toned-down sexual violence and far more intense kills, recalled during an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, watching a grindhouse crowd cheer during the two sexual assaults in the film yet get eerily quiet as main character Thana starts her killing spree. The crucial difference is that as Jennifer Hills undresses, Thana, played by Zoë Lund, dresses up. Literally. She spends the climax of the film in a nun costume. Femme Fatale, she is not. Furthermore, if we look at each killer’s weapon of choice, a gun for Thana and a knife for Jennifer, we again see the coldness Ferrara wanted in his killer and the intimacy intended by Zarchi. One can only watch so many horror movies before David Croneberg pops up to let you know that knives, surgery, and incisions are penetrative acts which equate to and heighten sexual encounters.
The subversion present in I Spit on Your Grave is representative of a growing sentiment felt by woman in an age where the internet makes extreme sex and kink much more accessible, complete fetishization. Tall stilettos, maryjanes, staying silent, telling a creep to fuck off, no matter what the woman does, it can and is sexualized. We see that pain within the rape-revenge genre as both something so violently, life-altering, rape, and something so personal as recovering agency after such a trauma exists in a completely sexualized nature. Fear of sexual assault is life-defining for woman in some ways. It alters your relationship with time, when is it safe, when is it not? It alters your relationship with your father, watching him stare at you and assess your likelihood of being a victim that day. Clothing, schooling, jobs. To take this all consuming black cloud which will set over a woman’s life forever and only see a great set-up for a movie where you can pay to watch a woman take her top off reveals a completely sexualized view of woman which suggests a complete panoptic dynamic. No matter what, when, or where, there are eyes which dress you down in some sort. The issue with these films is not that rape is depicted or even that rape is depicted in a callous way. It is that rape is sexualized. The rape is shown to be thrilling, not to scare an audience or reveal something about a character.
Rape-revenge films are largely by and for men, yet as noted earlier there are parallels between these films and ones made by or for woman. My two previous examples, Jennifer Check from Jennifer’s Body and Amy Dunne of Gone Girl, however, do not face sexual violence for their motivation. They instead both are driven mad by distorted versions of invisible slights inflicted by the patriarchy, Amy blames Nick neutering her competency to maintain control over their relationship and Jennifer blames Needy for escaping by getting a boyfriend. Like all things born from patriarchy, though, the fetishized female victims of intense violence are reflected back for women to also enjoy, making the excess use of these imagery more tolerable. Like those who sat from their directorial chair and observed as an actress got her top ripped off and thrown to the ground for a flash of skin and heroic motivation of the male lead, women too emphatically consume this imagery.
I doubt there is anyone who has been untouched by the wave of popularity True Crime has had over the last decade or so. Whether it be a new cheapo documentary which was dumped onto Netflix that week or a podcast set on discovering the true murderer of a cold case or even an ongoing investigation which has gripped the world, there is always some form of media being put out related to this genre pain fetishization. And, there's an audience for it, a massive one. Two of the most popular True Crime Youtube channels, Bailey Sarian and JCS - Criminal Psychology, have amassed a combined one thousand one hundred eighty nine million views. Ryan Murphy’s new show Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, which if you couldn’t tell by the multiple, helpful subtitles is a biopic about Jeffrey Dahmer, is raking in viewers as it recently became the fourth most viewed show on it’s streaming platform with just about seven hundred million hours of it being watched. A large portion of these views and hours are coming from women. Amanda Vicary and Chris Fraley, in a 2010 paper in the Social Psychological and Personality Science magazine, reported that seventy percent of Amazon.com reviews in the True Crime section were written by women, while generally the site’s reviews has a more even fifty-fifty gender split. A more anecdotal piece of evidence which can be seen from the comfort of your own home is simply looking up True Crime on TikTok which, right now, will show you nothing but women flexing how frightened they were of the poorly titled Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.
The response mentioned above is exemplary of the way these female fans interact with the genre of True Crime. This overcompensation in which the woman moves from being subject of the fetishization to the fetishizer. It’s a mentality which seems to be a response to the constant feed of victimizing imagery. It confirms the paranoia and fear of assault which can dominate the mind and frees them from it as they desensitize themselves from the realities which they once dreaded. Now these women search out the more and more grisly crimes to satiate their appetites for the thrill of blood. Just as the male-dominated grindhouse audiences cheered during the assault scenes in Ms .45, female True Crime fans callously discuss their favourite serial killers, school shooters, and murder victims. That panoptic eye which watches these fans is absorbed and reflected outwards again like a shield, hurting and fetishizing people in far more precarious situations.
Just like before as all the weight of the assault was washed from the rape scenes of I Spit on Your Grave, the pain of losing a family member to violent crime is also washed from the story of these True Crime cases. It is almost like the crime itself is too washed away. The only thing left is the gratification which comes from the consumption of it, the entertainment. The victim’s only role in the story is to scream. While it is nothing new to see patriarchal ideas internalized and acted on by women, it is surprising to see how coherently these ideas have been re-expressed. As True Crime continues to be a female space, we should remember it is not a feminist space. It is not feminist to cough up and spit out poisonous ideas on to another person.