I’ve mentioned before about how I’ve newly come to enjoy the horror genre, though that hasn’t really crossed over to movies. The music cues and jump scares just get to me and make the whole experience stressful and scary, which I guess means the filmmakers have done a good job. And that of course is what makes a good horror movie, it has to scare its viewers and there has to be a reason it’s scaring them. But I have seen a few horror movies, occasionally on my terms but usually not, and one that sticks out is Deliverance.
A movie that still scares viewers after forty-seven years, the 1972 film Deliverance (based on the novel of the same name by James Dickey who also wrote the screenplay and has a cameo appearance in the film) follows four city men who go on a weekend canoe trip to the Georgia wilderness to enjoy the (fictional) Cahulawassee River before the area is flooded with the nearby construction of a dam. Expecting a relaxing weekend together the four friends become targets to the hillbilly mountain-men who inhabit the forest and now must fight to survive.
Deliverance is a film so well known that saying what makes it scary is almost unnecessary, (but I’m going to do it anyways because that’s the point of this blog post). During their canoe trip and after not being welcomed by the townspeople, the four men split up in twos as they canoe down the river and are briefly separated. Two of the men Ed (Jon Voight) and Bobby (Ned Beatty) stop along a riverbank where they are confronted by two hillbillies with a shotgun who force them deeper into the woods. Ed is tied to a tree and forced to watch while Bobby is stripped naked and anally raped by one of the men (who tells Bobby to “squeal like a pig”). The hillbillies then turn their attention to Ed, commenting on his “pretty mouth” when Lewis (Burt Reynolds) and Drew (Ronny Cox) find their friends and Lewis kills the hillbilly rapist while the other man gets away.
After Ed and Bobby are rescued the four men agree that they have to find a way out of the forest and back to civilization since they are now being threatened by the hillbillies in the forest. There is little talk of going to the police to report the incident as Bobby doesn’t want anyone to know what happened, and his friends agree that it is a secret that should be kept hidden.
Deliverance has been referenced and even parodied in many t.v. shows and movies from the infamous sound of “Dueling Banjos” in a country setting to foreshadow danger to the line “squeal like a pig” which has been used in surprisingly comedic moments. One thing though is clear about Deliverance: what makes this movie scary is the fear of being sexually assaulted.
My first thought after watching Deliverance for the first time was that while the movie was definitely scary for its sexual assault scene, it wasn’t exactly an unseen of trope for the horror genre. In fact, what makes the “squeal like a pig” scene so shocking is that the sexual assault is happening to a man instead of a woman. This of course isn’t implying that sexual assault doesn’t happen to men (as briefly mentioned in Formo’s article who states that “sexual violence is also established to be more frequent than our data shows for boys and men”) just that in accordance to film it isn’t often shown, usually focusing on the sexual assault instead of a woman as a plot device. This of course got me thinking about how different Deliverance would have been if the movie was about four women exploring and surviving the Georgia wilderness instead of four men and if that change would still make the movie scary.
It also got me wondering about if men find Deliverance scary because it puts them in a position many women have been in and one many women fear to be in. In a 2012 interview with the Huffington Post Burt Reynolds noted that “women get this movie much quicker than men. Women also understand…I think the picture makes men think about something that’s very important, that we understand the pain and embarrassment and the change of people’s lives” (Morgan, “Four Men, Forty Years, Unforgettable Deliverance”). In fact, former Vice President Joe Biden referenced Deliverance in a speech at a Voices Against Violence event saying “After those guys tied that one guy in that tree and raped him, man raped him, in that film. Why didn’t the guy go to the sheriff? What would you have done? ‘Well, I’d go back home get my gun. I’d come back and find him.’ Why wouldn’t you go to the sheriff? Why? Well, the reason why is they are ashamed. They are embarrassed. I say, why do you think so many women that get raped, so many don’t report it? They don’t want to get raped again by the system” (Machado, “The Sunbelt South, The 1970s Masculinity Crisis, and the Emergence of the Redneck Nightmare Genre”).
While Deliverance attempts to get men to understand the fears of sexual assault that have been ingrained in women, I wonder if it has actually made an impression for how men view sexual assault against a person (regardless of gender) or if the movie has just acted as a warning, a what if, a nightmare in the woods to be afraid of, one that will (probably) never happen.
As a woman watching Deliverance the idea of going to an unfamiliar place even with a group of my female friends would still put numerous red flags in my mind. Women are conditioned to fear sexual assault in the unknown (and sometimes known), to fear what could happen when being “alone” (though that can sometimes just translate to not being around a man for safety) in an unfamiliar setting, whether that be walking home alone at night or wandering around a forest with friends. Deliverance isn’t as shocking then to women, as Reynolds acknowledges in his interview, but an expected danger to them.
And it made me think more about if the characters in the movie were women because it made me wonder if the “squeal like a pig” scene and even the movie as a whole would still be scary if it was happening to a group of women. Is it scary if a woman is raped on screen or should she “have known better”? And if the hillbillies in the forest were also changed to women and the sexual assault was woman on woman rape would it be as scary as the man on man rape in Deliverance? Does it become horrifying or titillating?
I of course have no answers because Deliverance bleeds with testosterone. Though many of its themes and truly violent scenes are more familiar to female viewers it is a man’s movie about surviving in an unknown violent situation where women are usually victims. It’s what makes Deliverance unique as a horror movie because this survival role is usually given to women in the genre. There is a lot of discussion over whether or not Deliverance actually is a horror film considering it contains a lot of elements not from the genre. Some consider it an adventure or survival film, some a thriller or drama. In the end, I guess it depends how much it scares you.