By TNHC's Editorial Director, Emily Malone.
The silent era of cinema, rich in pioneering techniques and storytelling, was a period before the stringent Hollywood Production Code, often referred to as the "Hays Code".
This absence of strict censorship allowed for more liberating portrayals of characters, particularly women, on the silver screen. It was an era where women in horror, unhindered by the Code's moralistic constraints, could create and embody roles that were not just complex, but also lethal. Before the enforcement of the Code in 1934, the cinematic landscape was deliciously audacious. Women could be protagonists, deadly villains, or femme fatales who wielded power over their male counterparts.
This freedom to explore these multifaceted roles was, in large part, due to the lack of industry-wide censorship, but also that women played pivotal roles in these early days of cinema. Because guess what? They were the studios' most coveted audience demographic. Figures like Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber pioneered in directing and screenwriting. And stars like Mary Pickford weren't just icons on screen but also wielded influence behind the scenes, co-founding major studios like United Artists.
In fact, the American Film Institute recently found that 'women represented a higher percentage of writers, directors and producers in the silent era than at any other time in the first century of American filmmaking'. Between 1915 and 1925, top female screenwriters like Frances Marion and Anita Loos wrote half of the silent films. Lois Weber was also the era's highest-paid director, leading some to dub the period a "manless Eden."
So women, it turns out, played a major foundational role in the rise of Hollywood. But as the film industry evolved and became more lucrative by the late 1920s and 1930s, regulations like the Hays Code ushered in a male-dominated era, sidelining many women from the influential positions they once held. While actresses remained central to the screen, the power dynamics off-screen shifted, marginalising women's roles in the industry's decision-making and creative processes.
You'd just need to look at Theda Bara’s role in 'A Fool There Was' (1915) to understand the power of the early cinematic femme fatale. While not strictly a horror film, Bara’s portrayal of the "vamp" character — a woman who uses her feminine allure to seduce and destroy men — resonates with the pre-Code era's audacious spirit. These vamp characters laid the groundwork for many female characters in the silent horror genre, who could be both seductive and deadly.
Horror films of this era frequently featured women not just as victims, but also as formidable forces of nature. They weren't just fleeing from monsters; sometimes, they were the monsters. This inversion of roles was a radical shift from traditional storytelling, reflecting the zeitgeist of a society in flux during the Roaring Twenties — a period marked by profound social changes and challenges to traditional gender roles.
It's a stark contrast to post-1934, when the Code began to rigorously police movie content. Suddenly, depictions of women as powerful — and especially as deadly or morally ambiguous figures — were curtailed. Women's roles became more conservative, and the horror genre, like others, was sanitised to fit a more 'moral' framework.
The Hays Code's guidelines, deeply rooted in conservative and traditional values, started to influence how women were depicted on screen, with implications that echoed throughout the industry:
Diminished Complexity and Agency
Before the enforcement of this Code, female characters in the '20s and early '30s were portrayed with a breadth of complexity. Women could be seen as independent, sexually liberated, and multifaceted — from sultry vamps to headstrong flappers. The Code sought to streamline female characters into more "acceptable" moulds, often relegating them to roles of pure-hearted heroines, long-suffering wives, or virtuous victims.
Repression of Sexuality
It's strict guidelines on sexuality meant that overt depictions of female sexuality were suppressed. This curbed the portrayal of sexually independent women and led to more covert methods of suggesting sensuality or sexual tension, such as subtext and innuendo. While this led to some creative cinematography and scripting, it undoubtedly hindered the portrayal of women as sexual beings with agency.
Emphasis on Traditional Roles
The Code promoted "correct standards of life" and upheld the sanctity of marriage and the home. As a result, women were often depicted in traditional roles as wives and mothers, with narratives emphasising their duty to home and family. Female ambitions outside these domains were often portrayed as problematic or as catalysts for conflict.
Censorship of "Unconventional" Lifestyles
Women living unconventional lifestyles — whether they be single mothers, divorcees, or women pursuing careers over families — were often portrayed with a level of caution, if at all. When these themes were explored, they were done so with a moralistic undertone, suggesting that deviation from the norm would result in personal and societal consequences.
Limitations on Female Villains
While villainous roles can offer rich character development, the Code's prescriptions against making crime and wrongdoing attractive limited the scope for nuanced female antagonists. If a woman was a villain, she often had to face severe consequences, ensuring that virtue and traditional morality triumphed by the end of the film.
Evolution of the "Damsel in Distress"
While this trope existed before the Hays Code, it was further popularised during the Code's reign. Women were frequently positioned as pure-hearted victims in need of rescue, emphasising vulnerability over agency.
Filmmakers sometimes found creative ways around these rules — using subtext, allegory, and symbolism to hint at deeper and more complex female narratives. But the Code's overarching impact was to cement a more conservative, limited portrayal of women on screen. And as the Hays Code's influence waned in the late 1950s and early 1960s, cinema began to see a resurgence of complex, varied, and realistic portrayals of women, a trend that has continued to evolve in the decades since — especially in the horror genre.
In retrospect, the silent era of horror, untethered by the looming shadow of the Hays Code, was a golden age for the portrayal of interesting female characters. It was a time when women, both on and off the screen, could defy conventions, challenging audiences with their depth and nuance, and at times, their capacity for deadly power. It shows us the rich stories that can explored when filmmakers aren't creatively restricted, and where women can truly shine in all their complex, multifaceted glory.