From Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley to Eihi Shiina’s Asami Yamazaki, the horror genre is loaded with strong female characters.
The horror genre ignites various reactions: excitement, fear, indifference. Horror aims to portray the unthinkable and push boundaries. From the classic monster tale of Frankenstein to the ’90s slasher hit I Know What You Did Last Summer to Andrzej Żuławski’s cult psychological thriller Possession, horror movies come in a variety of styles. Despite horror’s gory image and violent reputation, most movies in the genre center on female protagonists. But do horror movies have strong female characters? Let’s investigate.
The modern horror genre as we know it emerged in the 1950s and ’60s and provided social commentary while playing with viewers’ deepest fears: think demonic possession, alien invasion, mutations. Unfortunately, in the ’60s women often played victims on the silver screen. The two most famous examples are Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane, who’s stabbed to death in the notorious shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1961), and Mia Farrow’s naïve young housewife Rosemary Woodhouse, who’s backstabbed by her husband and impregnated by the devil himself in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). These scenes reflect an environment in which (sexually) independent women faced the brunt of society’s judgment when they “crossed the line.”
In the late 1970s and ’80s the popularity of slasher films rose. Slashers are defined as movies using “graphic violence and sexual titillation to attract audiences.” The final girl trope dominated this period. The final girl is “pure,” virginal. She’s the last one standing after all the other characters have been killed off and will undergo a drastic personal transformation in order to take on the killer in the final battle. In Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, author Carol J. Clover states that the general audience, regardless of gender, doesn’t root for the male killer but for the girl who escapes death. In other words, the final girl is the real heroine. Two of the earliest examples are the wide-eyed, long-suffering and traumatized survivor Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and the proactive Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).
It started as a joke, but the 1985 web comic Dykes to Watch Out For, created by Alison Bechdel, launched the Bechdel test, which is now used to measure the depth of female characters in movies. A film will pass the Bechdel test if it has more than one female character and the women communicate with each other about something other than men. The Bechdel test does not measure the quality of an individual film; it merely highlights certain patterns — e.g. sexism. It may come as a surprise to some that horror movies often pass the criteria of the Bechdel test.
Horror’s indelible imagery and visceral nature ingrained the genre in our pop culture lexicon. However, the genre has been criticized for numerous reasons: from sexual objectification and grave violence to the wrongful representation of women. In earlier horror films, women certainly were subjected to an array of violence: various forms of abuse (verbal, physical, sexual), abduction and murder. It can also be argued that certain subgenres of horror cater to the male viewer with their projection of hypersexualized female characters — think Friday the 13th sequels. For a long time, it seemed horror entailed only scantily clad women running from a chainsaw-wielding killer. Yet a number of films in the horror genre include nuanced and courageous portrayals of women.
In horror, women are often subjects instead of objects in the male character’s narrative. By contrast, in many action movies women characters exist seemingly for decorative purposes only. Female objectification pops up in mainstream culture whether it’s in comedies, action and/or romantic movies. Yet only horror is strongly singled out for the portrayal of negative tropes, when they’re actually prevalent in mainstream pop culture.
Strong female characters in pop culture are celebrated. Think Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road and Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, since horror is often dismissed, similar characters in this genre are overlooked. The classic example is Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode from the Halloween franchise. While Laurie embodies most of the characteristics of the final girl trope, she’s still a strong female character. Laurie is forced into a terrible situation but uses her wits, creativity and strength to fight off the killer Michael Meyers.
Arguably one of the most famous heroines in horror (well, in pop culture) is Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in the sci-fi horror Alien franchise (1979). Ripley is resourceful, intelligent and capable of kicking ass. It isn’t clear from the beginning that she’s a lead, but throughout her journey she becomes the most assertive crew member on the spaceship. Ripley is a well-rounded character with her own complex emotional arc. Weaver’s portrayal ensured that the film became a box office success and underlined that heroines can do anything just as well as their male counterparts. Ripley is an iconic strong female character and has often been a template for other heroines in mainstream pop culture.
Courteney Cox as Gale, Jamie Kennedy as Randy, and Neve Campbell as Sidney in Scream (1996) / Dimension Films
In the ’90s, teen horror movies such as the Scream series (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) became hugely popular. As Sidney Prescott scoffs in Scream: “Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.” The final girl trope may somewhat pigeonhole female characters, but the horror genre does consistently show women as the heroic protagonist. Horror movies tap into our fears and reveal our cultural anxieties. Horror shows that women can and will slay their internal and external monsters.
The last 20 years have given us various takes on horror that diverted from the clichés and showed a variety of female characters in the genre. In the Japanese horror Audition (1999), Asami is initially objectified but avenges herself. The psychological horror The Descent (2005) focuses on the interpersonal relationships among a group of women. The coming-of-age indie Teeth (2007) centers on a girl who’s plagued with the mythological condition of the vagina dentate. You’re Next (2011) is a refreshing take on the slasher genre; the final girl actually grew up on a survivalist compound and hid her past from all the other characters. We can find social commentary on the struggles and isolation of motherhood in the Australian film The Babadook (2014). And the Iranian horror A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) follows a lonely female vampire who preys on evil men. These films include strong female characters, and some reveal important social commentary.
There are valid reasons to critique aspects of the horror genre when it comes to portrayals of violence and misogyny. However, horror movies show us our deepest fears, provide cultural commentary and reveal anxieties beneath the surface of our society. Despite its visceral and violent image, the horror genre presents a diverse range of strong female characters.