How Horror Allows Women To Be Both Damsels And Demons
When you think of female characters in horror films, you might think of a bra-less bimbo being stalked through the woods by a masked serial killer. Or, perhaps you’re picturing a perfectly coiffed starlet from the 1940s fainting at the sight of a costumed monster. Either way, in the wake of today’s women’s empowerment movement, the first image conjured up is unlikely to be someone who seems worth idolizing at all.
However, if you take a closer look at these horror movies, it becomes clear that the horror genre has been a consistent vehicle in showing the world the real power of women; they aren’t just the main characters, they often drive the narrative of the film.
I remember the first time I watched A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) as a kid and immediately loved the character of Nancy Thompson. Portrayed by actress Heather Langenkamp, Nancy was a far cry from the stereotypical damsel in distress.
In fact, she ended up facing off against the indomitable Freddy Kruger herself. Not only that, it was Nancy who figured out what was really going on and taught herself how to fight the villain. It was also Nancy who saved herself and defeated Freddy. To this day, I aspire to be like Nancy because she’s smart, caring, and brave — but in an entirely realistic way.
There are other female characters like Nancy that you can easily find in horror films, unlike in many other genres where, if the female characters were removed, the movie’s plot could exist mostly the same. This is because the female character’s trials and tribulations are more commonly found to be the central force in horror films.
According to 2018 statistics by Women In Hollywood, which advocates for gender parity in the industry, horror movies ranked third among all genres in featuring a female protagonist. There is also a good number of horror flicks that actually pass the Bechdel Test, meaning they have at least two female characters that have spoken lines to do with things besides men.
Even in Old Hollywood films, where most women were relegated to window-dressing roles, the horror genre was doing more to give them space compared to other genres. In 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, Glenda Farrell’s intrepid reporter character, Florence, follows clues to solve the mystery and ends up saving the film’s true damsel in distress.
Another example that comes to mind is Cat People (1942), where Simone Simon brilliantly plays European immigrant Irena Dubrovna, who may or may not transform into a deadly cat creature any time her emotions flare up — a metaphor for society’s insistence that women not rise to the temptation of anger, lust, or any other “unladylike” emotion. The film shows its female character as both dangerous and vulnerable.
Besides giving female characters space to shine, the horror genre also explores the many roles that women can fit into. The woman’s role as a mother is a driving force for films like The Exorcist (1973), The Babadook (Australia, 2014), and Under the Shadow (Iran, 2016). Even more interesting are the female characters presented to us in horror flicks like Audition (Japan, 1999), Ginger Snaps (Canada, 2000), and the highly underrated Jennifer’s Body (2009) where femininity is painted in a much more realistic way by showing that women, too, have the potential to be both good and evil.
As Professor Barbara Creed, author of The Monstrous-Feminine, wrote, “Horror reflects society.” There hasn’t been a single instance in which women aren’t exposed to the everyday horrors caused by men. In this way, it makes sense for women to be leading these films that reflect our daily experiences with terror.
That’s why female characters in horror movies are often easier for us to recognize in ourselves than, say, the attractive gangster’s girlfriend who utters a few lines in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. In horror, at least for the most part, women are portrayed far more realistically and more nuanced compared to other genres.
When it comes to reflecting the horrors of society, a number of horror films have taken cues from real terrors that have haunted women, and have placed women in powerful central roles. The film The Witch (2015) takes the popular feminist view of history’s witch trials persecution and adds terrifying elements that only enhance the real-life horror of these events.
Some movies have even taken inspiration from the #MeToo movement of recent years. In 2016’s psychedelic thriller Neon Demon, it is the female characters that are in control in the highly exploitative world of modelling. In June, director Ari Aster, who was also behind the matriarchal horror flick Hereditary (2018), delved into the psychological impacts of everyday toxic relationships in his recently released Midsommar.
As a film buff, I believe that some of the best horror films are the ones that play off the “mundane” fears women face every time they leave their house. This is why seeing characters in these situations and being able to be the hero of their story is incredibly important for female audiences of all ages to watch on screen.
It’s critical to acknowledge the horror films that give us this female representation because not only do these films deserve recognition for achieving what most Hollywood blockbusters fail to time and again, but watching them can also help young women develop their own identity the way I did when I watched Nancy Thompson take down Freddy Kruger.
Seeing independent, intelligent, flawed, scared, and strong females on screen is incredibly important so that, as women, we can embrace those traits ourselves. So the next time you see another horror film with a woman at the center of it, (try to) keep your eyes open.