Significant spoilers ahead for season 1 of Jessica Jones.
The horror and superhero genres approach the world from opposite directions. Horror is meant to make the audience feel disempowered and terrorized. Superhero stories, by contrast, make viewers feel empowered and triumphant. Both genres often set out to give the audience the same thing — a big, satisfying burst of catharsis — but in different ways, and for different reasons.
But at the same time, the genres draw liberally from each other. To heighten the empowerment sensation, the superhero genre often uses horror elements. In the recent film Shazam!, the hero is menaced by oozing, hulking nightmare monsters, and his victory is sweeter because he’s initially terrified by what he has to overcome. Horror, on the other end, often includes a final victorious, empowering reversal. An aging Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in 2018’s Halloween remake survives a seemingly fatal fall and comes back to brutalize the villain, Michael Myers. She might as well be the Punisher, taking a brutal beating and coming back for more. Empowerment and disempowerment in these stories aren’t opposites: they’re complements. The superhero and horror genres fit into each other, creating a single monstrous or heroic amalgam.
Netflix’s Jessica Jones television series has been particularly fascinated with the line between superheroes and horror. The series’ title character (played by Krysten Ritter) is nominally a superhero. She has super strength and can make super-leaps. But she isn’t that strong; she can bust locks, not tear apart buildings. It’s difficult for villains to convincingly threaten Superman — that requires heavy special effects intervention, or obvious plot fixes like Kryptonite. But threatening Jessica is easy: she isn’t much harder to damage than a regular person. In the show’s most recent season, she’s wounded and has to have her spleen surgically removed, which has to be a first in a superhero story. Jessica is an empowered person always teetering on the edge of disempowerment.
Jessica Jones’ initial season brilliantly exploited the tension between horror tropes and superhero stories by pitting her against a terrifyingly powerful antagonist. Kilgrave (David Tennant) can control minds — whatever he says, people do. Jessica was under his influence for years, but eventually developed an immunity to his power. But everyone around her is susceptible. Kilgrave can manipulate Jessica’s friends and lovers, her neighbors, the police, even random bystanders in the streets.
Jessica Jones’ first season is essentially an extended slasher movie. The virtually omnipotent Kilgrave stalks Jessica through 13 episodes, orchestrating elaborate nightmare scenarios and murdering whenever the whim strikes him. Around Jessica, daughters smile while they kill their parents, and boyfriends set themselves on fire. The show is even more viscerally disturbing than most horror films because the sense of disempowerment is so absolute. As in horror films like The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, that sense of futility is explicitly linked to sexual violence. Kilgrave has raped Jessica before, and the threat that he will do so again hangs over the series. Like an abusive spouse or parent, Kilgrave controls the entire world. There’s no way out.
And that makes Jessica’s triumph all the more satisfying and empowering. Like Ripley in Alien, or Laurie in Halloween, or many other Final Girls before her, Jessica snatches victory from defeat, facing the undefeatable and becoming undefeatable herself. Her final confrontation with Kilgrave is a perfect encapsulation of the empowerment / disempowerment dynamic which links horror and superhero narratives. She seems to be completely defeated, losing her self and soul. The threat of further sexualized violence is obvious. And then she suddenly has the power, and her enemy doesn’t. The series has repeatedly questioned whether it’s all right for heroes to kill villains, but there’s no question that Jessica has to kill Kilgrave. She’s a superhero, but he’s put her in a slasher story.
After Jessica Jones’ brilliant first season — easily the best single season of any of Netflix’s Marvel shows — showrunner Melissa Rosenberg has struggled with ways of balancing its horror and superhero leanings. The second season used a Frankenstein-type story, with Jessica’s mother Alisa (Janet McTeer) gaining super strength much greater than Jessica’s after undergoing medical experiments. Those same experiments leave Alisa unable to control her anger. The story unfolds as a kind of tragic horror melodrama (again, Frankenstein-like), with Jessica powerless to prevent her mother from destroying herself and others.
Season 3 has shifted back toward the slasher storyline of the series’ beginning. The main villain is a Hannibal Lecter-like super-smart serial killer named Salinger (Jeremy Bobb). He doesn’t vastly outmatch Jessica as Kilgrave did, so the horror aspects don’t come through as clearly. Rather than running for her life, Jessica spends most of her time trying to figure out how to get evidence for the police. Justice by the book is sometimes a concern of superhero shows, but it’s not something slashers generally worry about much.
Still, as Samantha Nelson points out in her Verge review of season 3, the genre confusion does raise interesting questions about heroism, and less explicitly, about horror. Salinger constantly sneers at Jessica for “cheating” by getting her superpowers through luck, rather than earning them. But Salinger didn’t work for his brains either. Empowerment isn’t really about fairness in superhero or horror narratives. It’s a rush, not a deserved achievement.
And to heighten that rush, to bring home the sense of power, someone else needs to be disempowered. Both horror and superhero stories require unfairness and imbalance. In superhero stories and horror stories alike, there are strong people and weak people. The main difference between the genres is which group viewers are supposed to identify with. Salinger’s resentment of Jessica in season 3 echoes the reactionary bitterness of white male entitlement: he’s angry because he’s used to feeling powerful, and he finds it unfair that someone else — a woman he’d otherwise feel superior to — has more power than him, without “earning” it in a way he approves of. But he’s also angry because he’s a horror villain who’s stumbled into a superhero story. He sees himself as in control, until the darn superheroes get in the way.
Jessica Jones, for her part, often feels like a superhero who’s wandered into a horror narrative. She tries to fight for truth and justice, but like most people’s powers, hers are limited. She’s cynical, bad-tempered, and often drunk because she’s trying to be a hero in a world that has its teeth more than half-sunk into a different genre. It’s appropriate that the show has been the last Marvel Netflix series to be canceled. Jessica is a superhero familiar enough with horror to know that sometimes empowerment is just being the final girl standing.