Not the victims anymore: The rise of the feminist horror film


I’m a passionate horror apologist, but the genre has always treated women poorly. For decades now, female horror characters have essentially been variants on the ditsy slut who dies in the first act or the innocent virgin who is endlessly tortured, as parodied in Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods. The fact that these stories are frequently led by women can be misinterpreted as the films having strong female characters, but we’re often simply watching a cliche young girl scream and crawl away from the men attacking her.

The problem isn’t even badly fleshed out characters, though. The problem is that rarely in horror are the women not the victims. If they’re capable, it’s basically out of pure luck because the villain killed all her friends first or because it’s really not that hard to run away from a guy who only ever walks. Almost never is the protagonist a totally capable woman, and rarely can the antagonist be female (unless the film is more of a psychological thriller i.e. Misery). Women always have to be in pain, and men usually have to be the ones inflicting the pain.

In the 2010s, things have started to change.

You’re Next (2013) is a great example of a recent horror film breaking the decades-long convention of female characters being preyed upon . Directed by Adam Wingard, the movie starts as a traditional home invasion story: An upper class family is gathered for dinner when a group of intruders in animal masks begin to attack. But things take a turn when we find out that the main character, Sharni, is a survivalist. (That’s her in the picture above.)

She’s still a victim, but she’s strong, she’s capable, and she knows exactly what she’s doing. Brilliantly, the movie turns our expectations on their head as Sharni is actually more of a threat to the killers than they are to her. It’s a sad commentary on the genre’s history that having a horror story in which the woman is strong and capable felt so damn fresh.

The horror anthology film V/H/S (2012) presents the idea that men can be just as frightening as any supernatural beast, with the opening ten minutes depicting a group of filmmakers sexually assaulting women and filming it for the Internet. In its first segment, “Amateur Night,” a group of guys go out to the bar to pick up girls. They fully intend to bring these women back to their hotel so they can have sex and film it without the girls’ knowledge, a devastating betrayal that has us rooting against the men from the very start.

They encounter a young girl, Lily, and something seems off about her as she continues to stare straight into the camera and is undeniably creepy. The guys take her home to have sex, along with another woman who one of the main characters tries to sexually assault while she’s sleeping. Lily suddenly attacks and is revealed to be a succubus.

For once, it’s the woman who gets to punish a group of guys instead of the other way around.

In Trick ‘r Treat (2009), another horror anthology, one of the storylines involves three girlfriends going out on Halloween night, but they need dates. The opening scenes set this up as a stereotypical group of sluts to the point where we might initially roll our eyes. But this is all intentional on Michael Dougherty’s part, and the film completely subverts our expectations in the third act.

The whole conflict involves finding a boy for Laurie, who is nervous and has never done this before. That finally happens, but in a huge twist, we find out that they weren’t talking about sex after all. The girls are werewolves, and when they were talking about finding guys, they meant finding guys to eat. 

Not only is this awesome as a twist, but it seems like a direct response to the way other horror films depict women. We’re set up to believe we’re watching a movie where a bunch of thinly-written characters try to get laid, and instead we’re watching a bunch of badass female villains luring horny men into the woods to kill. Fuck yes.

With the original Evil Dead from 1981, we follow Ash Williams, very much a cliche “man’s man” who says things like “Hey, what do you say we have some champagne, huh, baby? After all, I’m a man and you’re a woman… at least last time I checked.”

The remake swaps out Ash for a female protagonist, Mia, and the result is representative of how far we’ve come. She’s terrorized for a majority of the movie, being attacked by the mysterious force that comes after her friends. But in the last act, she’s powerful enough to overcome it, fighting back and literally cutting the monster in half with a god damn chainsaw. In the first Evil Dead, the female characters are either props to be tossed around the room or they’re Ash’s property, the women that belong to this macho man. The remake says fuck all that and presents us with a strong, complex heroine who overcomes being the victim and certainly is no man’s property.

In The Loved Ones (2010), we get a pretty awesome female antagonist in Lola. When Brent turns her down for the prom, she kidnaps and tortures him to exact revenge. With the typical “scorned woman” trope like in Carrie, the character is still victimized. Carrie is horribly bullied by everyone around her, and so she goes on a murderous rampage using her supernatural powers. But this is after getting beaten down so much that we’re sort of rooting for her at the end in a strange way.

What’s cool about The Loved Ones is that Lola is allowed to be a straight up psychopath just like a male horror villain would be. In the past, whenever a woman is badass in horror, it’s primarily because she’s striking back. Even with The Exorcist, the villain is really the Devil himself, not Regan. But just like Jason, Freddy and Jigsaw can be lunatics, albeit with their own reasoning, so can Lola. She’s not a victim.

Wouldn’t it be nice for female characters to be varied in the way that male characters are, not being slotted into one role for every movie? That’s starting to happen with horror as we see in all these films, and the trend is still growing strong. In Unfriendedthe villain is a woman and many of her victims are women. We have female characters being punished as usual, but we also have another totally separate, totally unique female character as the antagonist.

And that’s what’s so cool about this. While a lot of these genre films have taken women and beaten them down for 90 minutes, rarely has the woman been the one doing the beating. If we have a female antagonist, she’s usually either a possessed young girl or a crazy old lady, i.e  Pamela Voorhees. For male horror characters, they can sometimes be the victims and sometimes the villains. They can be kidnapped and tortured, but they can also be the Jigsaw or the Freddy. We’re finally, gradually getting to the place where that’s the same for women too, and where their role is not simply to take off their clothes, to be brutally assaulted, to be bruised and hunted and punished for daring to be sexually promiscuous.

They’re not the victims anymore. They’re fighting back, kicking ass, and ripping apart the misogynistic assholes who have long been a staple of the genre.

It’s about time.

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