Girlhood to Monstress: How Women in Horror Have Always Been the Hero and the Villain
Art and Experience:
Horror has never been shy about discussing sexuality, body, and gender, and women happen to love that a lot.
Since the dawn of cinema, women have often been looked at as symbols rather than complex characters. Female characters have existed to serve the development of the main character, typically a male, through the lens of the manic pixie dream girl, the advice-giving best friend, a trophy for a hero, a damsel in distress, and many other played-out, one-dimensional characters. i
However, there is one genre where women are usually at the forefront.
Horror deals with the questions of sexuality, the body, and gender more than any other genre. Perhaps watching women-led movies that dealt with subjects like these is why women love horror. Although the genre has films that have misogynistic undertones or view its female side characters as one-dimensional, the leading woman has always made waves through cinema for her complexity and desire to survive.
Horror and Women
Women have not only enjoyed watching horror, but they’ve also enjoyed creating. Women have even shaped some of the more well-known horror conventions of the genre that exist today.
Author and playwright Daphne du Maurier constantly wrote dark and ghostly tales like Rebecca, The Birds, and Don’t Look Now that eventually were adapted to films by Alfred Hitchcock. Although her horror writing is what made du Maurier a household name, her paranormal work has been classified as romantic works of literature rather than horror.
Even one of the first female directors in the world, Alice Balché, created some of the first horror films that would later become a vital inspiration to Hitchcock’s work, but faded into oblivion and was forgotten by film history.
Although women often go unseen in the world of horror, the genre still embraces women as the heroine which has led to the creation of the final girl trope. From the start, horror allowed women to be more than damsels in distress. Women were able to let the audience see the horror in a story from their perspectives.
The driving force behind the horror genre is the leading women. Some critics argue that women work as the leading characters because it is easier for the audience to fear a protagonist who is viewed as weak in comparison to the thing that is feared. Perhaps a darker possibility could be that the male filmmakers who are making most of the horror films want to punish women. Women typically take twice as long to be murdered on screen than men do. This could be a male gaze thing or the psychological horrors of how our society views women as prey and predator.
‘Us’CREDIT: Universal Pictures
Victim and Villain
There is this idea that women in horror have only been viewed as a victim since the start of cinema and have only recently transcended into a survivor thanks to “elevated horror” films like Midsommar, The VVitch, and Neon Demon. “Elevated horror” comments on social issues rather than the guts and gore of horror films like The Evil Dead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
While other genres have just started writing female characters more seriously, horror has always had complex women that are both victims and villains. Villainy and womanhood have always been in conversation in the genre even in “low-brow” slashers. The first example of this was in the 1913 silent film The Werewolf, written by one of the earliest female screenplay writers, Ruth Ann Baldwin. In this film, a Diné woman transformers into a wolf and murders the invading white settlers. The 1920 film Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire follows Genuine on her journey of revenge on those who locked her away after purchasing her at a slave market. Both films show the women transform from victims to the thing that is feared through the harm done by an outside force.
Carrie officially launched the new type of woman in horror: the monster and the hero. Film scholars have considered Carrie to be the first horror movie of its kind where fear lurks within the protagonist. The threat is internal as the girl attempts to navigate a newfound power that turns Carrie (Sissy Spacek) into a monster because the world is afraid of what she could become. There are no cursed objects, bloodthirsty creatures, escaped convicts, or any other character trope; there is only a girl becoming a woman in a world that is unkind.
Sissy Spacek in ‘Carrie’CREDIT: United Artists
Puberty and Bloodlust
Carrie introduced one of the most interesting practices in contemporary horror of a young woman veering onto a dark path. Her bloodlust is sudden after her first period or a sexual awakening. Films like Carrie and Ginger Snaps seem to tell us that puberty makes monsters out of girls as both films begin with periods.
Both films tell stories about the failures of repression to contain things that are naturally feminine, reading as a warning to those who attempt to shame women for being women. While the films both seem to say menstruation is a curse, the transformation gives both Ginger (Emily Perkins) and Carrie power. Although Carrie doesn’t enjoy the bloodlust, Ginger’s confession to liking the bloodlust signifies that she doesn’t conform to the social norms, making her a monstress.
Justine (Garance Marillier) in Raw is a long-time vegetarian who struggles with her desire for human flesh after she is forced to eat raw meat as a hazing ritual for university. Although Justine doesn’t kill anyone, her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), makes a habit of causing car accidents to feed her craving for flesh. The sisters are the same, connected by their cannibalism, but only one of them is made to be the villain.
Alexia’s antagonism is softened by her relationship with her sister as she tries to help Justine understand that their bloodlust can’t be helped, but Alexia still acts to ensure that her desires are met. The audience feels sympathy for characters like Carrie, Ginger, and Alexia because they have become creatures who long for blood and revenge, yet these women must die in the end.
In rare circumstances, some montresses are not stopped in the end. Teeth is different from the other films because Dawn (Jess Weixler) is born with her ability rather than obtaining it from her cycle or a sexual awakening. She doesn’t know that her vagina has teeth until someone she trusts tries to sexually assault her, and her vagina dentata rips the guy’s penis off. The monstress abilities of Dawn pale in comparison to the other monstresses because her acts of villainy are viewed as heroic. The film’s true villain is rape culture, and make the monstress of Teeth a person of circumstances rather than someone who lusts for blood.
All these women do bad things to people in their films, but they are not always the enemy. Most of the time, the audience will cheer or tweet out, “Good for her,” as these women attack those who harmed them physically and emotionally.
Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) in Jennifer’s Body is definitely evil, but she is also a survivor of assault. Although the theme of Jennifer being a survivor of assault is subtle in the movie, the audience still understands that her character was almost murdered and only survived thanks to a demon taking over her body. Jennifer didn’t want that to happen to her, yet she continues to do what she needs to survive. Women become the monstresses they are due to the underlying narrative of the film. Through their abuse or humiliation, women transform into a being that must be heard.
The trope of girlhood-to-monstress attempts to convey the message that the girls will become a monster that the world makes them out to be. Even if they are defending themselves from assault, at-home abuse, or the unfortunate realization that they come from a long line of cannibals, women will do what it takes to survive in a world that attempts to cast them out.
The horror genre has a funny way of showing love to women. Perhaps the monstress is a liberation of women that celebrates the triumphs and tribulations of womanhood, but audiences must also question why the genre kills women who lose their innocence.
While we must give credit to horror for creating complex women, there is still work that needs to be done to focus on the horrors that women of color and trans women face in their lives. If women dominate the genre, then there needs to be room for all women to exist within the space.