In horror films, why is it so often only the lily-white, shy girls who outrun the big baddie?
We love horror movies. Trailers for them adorn our moviegoing experience through the beginnings of the Halloween season and continue through the end of the winter holidays. So what is it about horror that engages us? In Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover writes that what makes horror crucial is “its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings.”1 We are horror movies. And horror movies have rules. If you want to survive:
- Don’t have sex.
- Don’t drink or do drugs.
- Never, ever say “I’ll be right back.”
Only virgins survive the big massacre at the end. Often they are the lily-white, shy girls who outrun the big baddie. It would then be interesting to dissect the role of women in these films, particularly the trope of the so-called “final girl,” that is, the last surviving female who manages to overpower the movie’s offender. From Laurie Strode in Halloween to Sally in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, women have been postured as the strong survivors of bloodbaths all the while being objectified. Horror, as in real life, hates women. However, it is probably the genre with the most “strong female characters.” What this essay hopes to do is confront the realities of portrayals of women in horror as victims, antagonists, and heroes.
The opening of Halloween (1978) is a long take from the inside of a mask, our point-of-view reduced to two tiny holes. We see a young couple making out on a couch when they decide to take things upstairs. After their illicit encounter, blonde bombshell Judith Myers sits topless brushing her hair before her six-year-old brother Michael brutally stabs her.
Horror as a genre consistently punishes “loose” women. Girls who aren’t afraid to be overtly sexual get picked off first, like the runt of the litter. Often, you can tell who is going to die by the tightness of their clothes and the depth of their V-necks. Pam from Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) wears a deep V, backless halter top and deeply enjoys fooling around with her boyfriend. She dies hanging from a meat hook. Tatum from Scream (1996) wears tight sweaters and short skirts. She dies, crushed by a garage door.
But for every whore, there is a Madonna. Characterized by their sexless clothing and quick wit, these girls survive the night and often take down the perpetrator in question. Syd from Scream, Sally from Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Laurie from Halloween all emerge at the end of their respective films bloodied, victorious over forces of pure evil. They are notably more reserved when compared to their carefree, sexualized counterparts. cThis says something interesting about how the women who perish and those who survive are coded. Clover writes:
The fact that female monsters and female heroes, when they do appear, are masculine in dress and behavior (and often even name), and that male victims are shown in feminine postures at the moment of their extremity, would seem to suggest that gender inheres in the function itself—that there is something about the victim function that wants manifestation in a female, and something about the monster and hero functions that wants expression a male.2
Only when women are stripped of their femininity (in the performative sense) are they allowed to subvert the expectations of the genre. While it is posed by the film’s marketing and film enthusiasts as some big feminist undertaking that the heroes of the genre are women, we must first take a step back and acknowledge that horror’s heroines are still the fantasy of the men who wrote them.
But what about the women who can be both victim and killer? An increasingly popular (but not altogether new) trend in movies has women weaponizing their sexuality to become the villain. The “madwoman” is the woman who does not behave, who chooses not to act within society’s views of femininity. A new wave of feminism has given women the agency to become the protagonist/antagonist they deserve to be. Clover writes:
The women’s movement has given many things to popular culture, some more savory than others. One of its main donations to horror, I think, is the image of an angry woman—a woman so angry that she can be imagined as a credible perpetrator (I stress “credible”) of the kind of violence on which, in the low-mythic universe, the status of full protagonists rests.3
Although marketed and received as a thriller/revenge film, I contend that Gone Girl has its roots in horror classics like Halloween and exemplifies the fully-formed feminine villain. The plot creeps by as we watch a scorned woman “kill” herself to enact revenge on her idiotic husband. It’s slow and deliberate, but it isn’t senseless and bloody unlike the revenge porn flicks of the ’80s. Amy Dunne is evil and that’s okay. Women killers usually have a motive which attributed to the opposite and largely dominant sex. Clover writes:
Females killers are few and their reasons for killing significantly differ from men’s. With the possible exception of the murderous mother in Friday the Thirteenth I, they show no gender confusion. Nor is their motive overtly psychosexual; their anger derives in most cases not from childhood experience but from specific moments in their adult lives in which they have been abandoned or cheated on by men.
Amy Dunne is not the only example of this type of villain. In his Puritan nightmare The Witch (2015), Robert Eggers writes a female villain who only warrants the term villain during the last twenty minutes of the movie. During these twenty minutes she is enticed to “live deliciously” and use her sexuality as a means to gain control of her powers as a witch.
As we look toward the future of horror, I hope to see more complicated women. Women who aren’t bound to the virgin/whore complex which has thus far dichotomized them, resulting in one-dimensional portrayals of what is arguably the genre’s dominant sex. The overused phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” rings true, as clichéd as it is. I think it’s high time we allow women to be murderers and victims, as well as psychopaths and unrestricted sexual beings.