Women in Horror: Transformative Characters Who Defied Stereotypes
These women didn’t run away from danger. They stepped up to it.
It’s no secret that horror films have been known to push a rather sexist agenda against women. We all know of the misogynistic tales of morality that punish certain women for living freely, while rewarding the so-called “good girls” for adhering to a rigid set of archaic societal values. The presence of such films, however, should not overshadow the emblazoned horror movies that have been overtly pro-women. In fact, horror has managed to transform into a genre that is less primordial and more feminist than some might consider.
In slasher films, the final girl trope has created a larger, more interesting space for female characters to occupy. After the troubling bodycounts pile up, these terrorized female leads are the only ones left alive because they serve a greater purpose. Watching them escape danger, avenge their loved ones, and take down the killer makes the final girl’s survival all the more rewarding.
In Wes Craven’s iconic Scream franchise, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is the final girl who breaks archetype. Not only is she smart enough to slip away while Billy and Stu are busy fighting, but she also acts fast and with unwavering courage by killing them both. In fact, when Billy comes back to life for one last stab, Sidney isn’t having it. She grabs a gun and shoots him in the freaking head because Billy was dumb enough to bring a knife to a gun fight.
Of course, Sidney’s clearest sign of rational thinking is highlighted, over and over, by her decision to call and work with the police to catch the psycho serial killers who have terrorized her life. Oh, and let's not forget that Sidney has the cojones to call up the killers and taunt them using Ghostface’s voice. She gets smarter in every sequel and learns from her mistakes. The horror gods can throw whatever they want at this slasher goddess because Sidney Prescott is always ready to play and fight back.
But Sidney isn’t the only smart heroine in slasher films. As it goes, intelligence is a defining factor for such women. These budding intellectuals are interested in books, studying, and their future career prospects.
Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) kicked off this trend in Halloween. She pays attention and participates in class, worries about forgetting her chemistry book, and notices when something is off. That’s how she catches onto her stalker and eventually outsmarts him.
Then there’s Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) from A Nightmare on Elm Street who remains steadfast in her defiance against Freddy Krueger. Hey, it’s not easy trying to convince yourself and believing that you can escape the throes of a rapturously demented child killer. Yet Nancy holds on and willingly rushes into danger so she can find her crispy attacker’s weakness. She swings at him with a sledgehammer, smacks him with a lightbulb, and even sets him on fire until he begs for mercy. Seriously, Nancy is the definition of balls-y.
Now, if we’re talking about final girls, there’s one woman we definitely can’t leave off the list. One of the greatest final girls of the decade comes courtesy of You’re Next which took the home-invasion sub-genre and spun it on its head. Although Erin (Sharni Vinson) looks like Ann Perkins from Parks and Recreation, she’s got all the makings of the ultimate survivalist. Before significant bloodshed, Erin adapts to her horrific predicament and begins taking down her assailants. The shift of power from a band of murderous masked men to a petite and remarkable woman is particularly satisfying. You’re rooting for Erin till the very end because her survival means everything. Rather than running around the house screaming and waiting to be killed, Erin sets traps and actively pursues the psycho killers. They have no idea what’s coming, and boy does she deliver.
Sidney, Laurie, Nancy, and Erin are characters who prove that women in horror can be something more than what we expect from such a genre. They aren’t hags or mere objects of desire. They are more than the sum of their sexuality, going fully beyond the common characterizations of virgins or women full of vice. By directing our focus on the final girl, these slasher films align our sympathy and concern with the woman being pursued. They’re not damsels in distress. Instead, these women pick up a weapon of their choice and get down to business because there’s no time to waste.
But what happens when the villain is much more sophisticated and a master of manipulation? What kind of heroine does it take to bring down someone like that?
Jodie Foster’s turn as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs took things to a whole new level. Not only did she win an Oscar for her performance, but she also portrayed one heck of a badass. As a fledgling FBI trainee in the Behavioral Science Unit, Clarice takes Hannibal Lecter by surprise. Initially, she’s a bit frazzled by Lecter’s unflinching male gaze, but she transforms into a formidable heroine thanks to her professionalism and poise.
Make no mistake: Clarice is not a lightweight. She masters Lecter’s game of cat and mouse and inadvertently earns his admiration. By the end, she is as cool, levelheaded, and lethal as one could be after enduring the presence and emotional torture of a monster such as Lecter.
In opposition to Clarice’s unquestionable status as a heroine, there’s Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) from Diablo Cody’s grievously underrated horror flick, Jennifer’s Body. We know this young woman is tough, not just because of her crass commentary, but by her pure exhibition of demonic strength. Jennifer’s alternative ethos are thrust to the side, so we can concentrate on her insatiable appetite as a man-eating demon. She is a richly complex character who is difficult to love or loathe.
After all, Jennifer turns into a demon because a virginal sacrifice goes awry. Before she transforms into a monster, though, Jennifer becomes the victim of sexual assault. It’s only after she begins to harness the overwhelming nature of her gastro and sexual appetite that she evolves into the sleek and steely monster that everyone in her high school considers her to be.
When you factor in Needy’s (Amanda Seyfried) revenge kill at the end of the movie, you can see that Jennifer’s Body isn’t built on tired, exploitative tropes. Aside from their gory, blood-drenched battle to the death, Jennifer and Needy’s friendship endures till the very end. In fact, Needy remains sympathetic to Jennifer’s cause, ultimately tapping into her BFF’s messed-up emotions and looking deeper than Jennifer’s body.
It’s the enigmatic and haunted heroines who are hard to pin down but easy to love. Stoker indulges in the exploration of India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska) burgeoning desires which reach the tenor of horror due to the presence of her uncle. India is one of the finest weird girls of modern cinema, whose lose of innocence and cross into womanhood awakens a monstrous nature that has long remained dormant. In the end, this wondrous weirdo— who is an odd mix of a hero and a villain — finally masters the balance between base impulses and her own unique brand of feminine violence.
Not one to be outdone, Scarlett Johansson displays her own personal brand of a horrific weirdo in Under the Skin. She plays Laura—an alien who trolls the streets of Scotland looking for human prey. It’s easy to slip under her spell even though she’s an anomaly. Laura’s curiosity about the people she’s hunting is mesmerizing, especially after she lets one of her victims free. To put it simply, Laura is hypnotic and horrifying. Her presence is overwhelming because her victims remain mostly unaware of their impending doom. Yet something about her burrows its way into your brain and remains long after the movie has ended.
Although Laura barely speaks in Under the Skin, she is unforgettable. It is a massive triumph for a female character who is largely silent to command such authority. Laura will elicit an emotional response out of you that might have seemed impossible. After all, she knows exactly how to get under the skin.
Both Stoker and Under the Skin serve up protagonists who subvert the male gaze despite being oogled at and desired sexually. In fact, India and Laura look death in the face and remain unmoved by it. This absence of fear is freeing. It unshackles their true form which is as horrifying as it is exhilarating to watch.
Of course, there’s also the reluctant or unexpected heroine in horror. The Descent gave us badass Sarah Carter (Shauna Macdonald) who understands the concept of kill or be killed. The movie allows Sarah to be violent and cruel because she’s trapped in a cave with her five female friends and some very blood-thirsty monsters. Unsurprisingly, the all-female cast enables the movie to blow the Bechdel test out of the water!
The blood-soaked misadventure Sarah stumbles upon allows her to be petrified and pissed-off. Her literal and metaphorical descent down the cave creates a womblike atmosphere that’s immediately claustrophobic and horrific. Yet Sarah’s physical prowess is on constant display because she’s locked into survival mode. She does not crumble from the physical and psychological pressures imposed upon her, but rather uses her startling circumstances to adapt and display all her kick-ass glory.
Of course, Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) knows all about reveling in one’s kick-ass glory. Arguably the greatest heroine of all time, Ripley is the defining character of the Alien franchise. Flexing both her biceps and motherly instincts, she’s the perfect amalgamation of a delicate and deadly protagonist. Seriously, this woman could comfort a cat just as easily as she could blow the Alien queen to shreds.
Ripley wields guns and asserts her authority because she’s a natural born leader. The woman can handle anything because she’s used to fending for herself. It’s the stark contrast between her levelheadedness and unbridled fury that makes Ripley so palpable. Within the bleak horror of the spaceship, Ripley emerges as a survivor and heroine as opposed to a victim. There are times when she doesn’t seem especially sympathetic towards other human beings, but that’s also because her male counterparts constantly undermine her intelligence. In the end, it’s Ripley who outsmarts a heinous intergalactic creature that has managed to efficiently kill off every male member of her crew.
Ripley is a hero born out of necessity. She is an unexpected lone survivor — the final girl who also happens to be the mother of the modern female heroine in horror.
All the female characters mentioned above have experienced something intensely psychological on-screen, and their responses reveal a deeper truth about human nature and feminine power. Not only are they great protagonists, but these women get to have rich emotional lives. In fact, their presence reaffirms the belief that it is possible to see feminine agency in horror films.