Horror movies have always been a way to measure what scares us. The 1950s gave us films like The War of the Worlds, which symbolized our fear of nuclear war. More recently, the so-called “torture porn” era of Saw and Hostel seemed to echo post-9/11 trauma — not to mention our growing awareness of our government’s barbaric torturing of prisoners. Whether Hollywood is capturing the zeitgeist or cynically profiting off it, horror films are as timely a genre as there is. If it’s in a horror film, it’s also in our collective subconscious.
The latest version of The Invisible Man is part of a new trend of horror movies that mines a societal terror that’s always been around — except one gender probably never noticed it, which was part of the problem. In the film, Elisabeth Moss plays Cecilia, a bright, talented architect who’s trapped in a shitty relationship with Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), an Elon Musk-esque tech genius who’s also abusive and manipulative. We’re used to horror movies full of ghosts and serial killers, cursed videotapes and scary aliens. But in The Invisible Man, the terror couldn’t be more banal or upsetting: Cecilia has to do battle with both an asshole boyfriend and a culture that lets him get away with his behavior. She’s on her own — except for other recent female characters in horror movies who have faced the same dilemma.
Early on in The Invisible Man, Cecilia gets away from Adrian, seeking shelter with her best friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his adorable teen daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), whose home Adrian doesn’t know. Suffering from PTSD, Cecilia hides in the house, certain that her ex will break down the door at any moment. But shocking news comes from her estranged sister Alice (Harriet Dyer): A bereft Adrian has taken his own life. Cecilia can’t quite believe it. Is she finally free of this bad man?
It wouldn’t be a horror movie if she was, of course, and soon strange things start happening inside James’ house — conveniently, when Cecilia is alone. A lost pill bottle suddenly reappears. The drawings she’d packed for an important job interview are missing when she opens her bag. Is his house haunted? Is she imagining things? Or is it possible that Adrian faked his own suicide and is using an invention that renders him invisible so he can continue making this woman’s life an utter hell? We have every reason to believe her, but James and others start to wonder if she’s going insane.
Speaking recently to the L.A. Times, Moss explained why this Invisible Man, loosely inspired by H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel, struck a nerve for her. “That feeling of not being believed, not being heard or being scrutinized for believing something you know in your heart to be true is something I think on varying levels we can all identify with,” she told the paper. “When I start telling people what this movie was about and how it was being used as an analogy for gaslighting, I was really surprised by how many people would get this look in their eye. It’s a commonality that I think deserves to be explored.”
This particular horror device is hardly new. The term “gaslighting” itself sprung from a 1938 play called Gas Light, which was turned into two movies — most memorably, the Oscar-winning 1944 thriller Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman, who played a woman being slowly driven crazy by her vindictive husband. And neither is the conceit of an abused woman trying to escape the clutches of a toxic lover novel: In the early 1990s, Julia Roberts starred in Sleeping With the Enemy, where she was a wife who fakes her death to get away (unsuccessfully) from her terrible spouse.
But what is different about this Invisible Man — and how it connects to other recent horror movies — is that the filmmakers want you to think about the societal structures that keep these women feeling trapped. It’s not just the bad guy out to get our hero — in a sense, the female character is at the mercy of a whole world designed not to help her. And because we in the audience see the film from her perspective, a lot of us (meaning men) get a small taste of the daily terror that women walk around with.
In the wake of #MeToo, the phrase “Believe women” has become a powerful rallying cry to combat this specific kind of helplessness. Tired of being doubted or dismissed, women who have suffered abuse and assault have made a simple assertion: that they’re not crazy or exaggerating and that what they experienced was real. For our society to get to a place where the notion of “Believe women” was actually embraced has been a long time coming (although not in all cases). Still, the fact that the terror of not being believed has become central to so many recent horror films isn’t coincidence. Again, perhaps this is Hollywood cashing in on a shared fear, but the angst simmering in these movies feels resonant enough.
Just a cursory look at notable 2019 horror films illustrates how “Believe women” has taken root in mainstream storytelling, even if it’s merely accidental or tangential. Perhaps the best of the bunch, Midsommar, focused on Dani (Florence Pugh), a college student mourning the tragic death of her family members who has a terrible feeling about the freaky Swedish commune that she, her dipshit boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and his buds are visiting. Here, Dani’s trauma isn’t abuse, per se, but from the start she’s marginalized by the men around her, trapped in a space where she’s not taken seriously and can’t escape.
Perhaps Dani could take comfort in knowing that other onscreen women have had it just as bad. In the new version of Black Christmas, college student Riley Stone (Imogen Poots) is reeling from being raped by a frat guy, an incident that many at her school think she made up. Like a nightmarish physical manifestation of her anguish, a mysterious killer suddenly starts wreaking havoc on campus, targeting Riley and her girlfriends, while the incompetent cops sit by and do nothing. In the underrated Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the entire reveal of the nefarious forces at play involves a woman not being believed — that act of denial causes all the horror that takes place in the film. And in It Chapter Two, the sad life of Beverly continues: As a kid, her father raped her, and now as an adult she’s stuck in an abusive marriage.
For all these women, there’s very rarely a knight in shining armor to come save them. If anything, the men in their films tend to be unhelpful — or worse, a facilitator of their misery. Instead, the characters have to rely on themselves or team up with their female friends to restore order.
Moss knows this thematic terrain well. Not just in The Handmaid’s Tale but in last year’s The Kitchen, where she played a woman beaten down by her abusive husband, she has played characters who don’t know the strength they have within them until they’re pushed to the breaking point by a chauvinistic society. In a way, The Invisible Man is an opportunity to sound some of the same alarm bells as she has in her previous work. But it also feels like an evolution in horror away from the “final girl” era of slasher films, where the female survivor’s main character trait was that she doesn’t die. That revisionism was certainly the strategy behind 2018’s Halloween sequel, which depicted Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode as a survivor still eaten up by the trauma she endured at the hands of Michael Myers decades ago. (Tellingly, her family mostly thinks she should just get over it.)
But like Laurie, this new batch of horror heroines know they’re not crazy — they’ve been the victims of terrible physical or sexual violence, and if they behave a little oddly, well, you would, too. That’s why, although The Invisible Man ends up being a pretty average horror film, Moss keeps you locked into what’s happening. She’s always been superb at suggesting the untapped depths of her characters, and so although we never see the abuse Cecilia suffered, we don’t doubt for a minute that it happened.
In the “Believe women” age of horror, the stars are no longer a Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees — colorful sociopaths with a flair for clever kills. It’s ordinary people like Cecilia, Dani or Riley who are too often invisible victims. A film like The Invisible Man taps into a collective groundswell that it’s time to start taking these people’s plight seriously. And interestingly, more often than not, the female characters in this new horror era get a happy ending.
It would be nice if that were truer for so many real-life survivors.