The Surprising Truth About Women in Horror Films

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I’ve had a mission so to speak to watch more classic films. The kind that actually upset people when they learn I have not seen them (e.g. “You HAVEN’T SEEN THE GODFATHER?!). Being someone who tends to love horror films (hence the blog) I’ve been really disgusted with how most highly-regarded films depict women. Adrian being forced to stay with Rocky when she tries to leave multiple times? Kay having the door dramatically shut on her face at the end of The Godfather? Literally everything Sharon Stone does in Casino? I am not saying these are bad movies, merely that classic films are often completely disinterested in female characters. You would be hard pressed to find more than a few films on any “best of” list which focus on a female lead or woman-centered story that isn’t driven by a romantic relationship.

That is until you look at the horror genre.

According to this analysis of which genre films pass the Bechdel Test, most often it’s horror (after a genre labeled music which is a dubious classification that encompasses movies which focus on or heavily use music but are not musicals) that takes the cake. All of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies pass as do many of the Friday the 13th films. Horror films beat romances, musicals, dramas, and comedies in this regard. In addition to this, horror is the only genre in which women have more on-screen time than men. It also has women speaking more than any other genre. 

This isn’t to say horror films are perfect. Female characters talking in films isn’t the end all in determining if a film respects its female characters. Historically with horror films and particularly slashers, women having more on-screen time than men in these films is often a result of a combination of character development and more prolonged stalking sequences.

The final girls in horror films are born out of practicality not empowerment. Creators know it is easier for the audience to imagine women in peril (some critics would argue the audience also takes more pleasure in it) – so the final girl trope is a good thing born out of indifferent/amoral intentions. As viewers, we are more inclined to critique a male character for not fighting back against a villain. But with a female character, it is more understandable she would try to flee before directly engaging with a villain who is often depicted as more physically formidable. This adds to the suspense and tension the movie is trying to make us feel.

But to make a statement about the way women are depicted in horror films, we need to have a basis of comparison which is often lacking in critiques of horror films because women are so often lacking in other types of film. Classic films can often marginalize, belittle, and disrespect women far more than horror films. Unlike other films, women are the heroes in many horror films – especially in the slasher subgenre. The main male character in many horror films isn’t some antihero we are meant to root for as he demeans and disregards the most important women in his life. The main male character is often a cold blooded killer who murders men and women alike. This isn’t to say this black and white depiction of good and evil is necessary to being a female-positive film. It is just to say that there are far more critically acclaimed films that demand acceptance and excuses for problematic men then there are for problematic women.

Although the final girl wasn’t born from empowerment, she has become empowered in slasher canon nevertheless. The final girl is a fortunate mistake: she is a byproduct of believing audiences couldn’t see a male character victimized the same way they can see a female character victimized. But in creating this trope, horror films inadvertently put women at the front and center of their narratives. And eventually, the horror genre naturally continued to evolve and become increasingly nuanced in its depiction of female characters, including final girls.

This leads to one myth I believe deserves some major busting:

The Virginity Thing & Golden Age Slasher Films

Sometimes exalting the final girl is done by contrasting her behavior with other more morally ambiguous female characters (which again wouldn’t be different from many other films). But often, what makes a final girl different is not dependent on her being a virgin. It’s more a matter combining luck with situational awareness. As Amy Nichols aptly points out in the podcast series Halloween Unmasked, audiences often take the wrong message away from the pioneering slasher Halloween:

It’s like when you play telephone and you whisper ‘being lonely makes you observant’ and the person at the end yells ‘DON’T HAVE SEX OR YOU’LL DIE!'”

Amy Nichols, Halloween Unmasked

The final girl is often incorrectly assumed to be a virgin, and this metric of morality is used in arguing why she survives and other characters die. The myth seems to originate from Halloween. But Halloween is one of the only slasher films that indicates it’s final girl is a virgin. Even Jamie Lee Curtis said there is no deeper meaning to Laurie Strode being a virgin. Furthermore, Laurie Strode’s virginity can be contrasted with many other final girls who aren’t virgins and who do indulge in partying. Even before Scream‘s Sidney Prescott, there were final girls like Black Christmas‘s Jess Bradford, Friday the 13th Part II’s Ginny Field, and A Nightmare on Elm Street Part IV & V‘s Alice Johnson who are all explicitly not virgins. There are also final girls like Friday the 13th‘s Alice Hardy who drink and play strip poker.

What makes these characters different is often boiled down to not indulging in onscreen sex and partying. But focusing on these qualities detracts from what truly makes them different: a combination of being observant, resourceful, and lucky. In the confines of a 90 minute movie, these things may appear to be mutually elusive but are not. Instead, characters who are engaging, attempting to engage, or just finished having sex or partying are often caught suddenly and completely off guard by a killer at a time where their reaction skills have plummeted and they are at their most vulnerable. Contrast this with the final girl, who often has much more time to discover and identify the threat before having to directly engage with it, and it makes sense why she prevails when others do not.

Contemporary Slasher Films

As slashers continue to evolve, their meta manipulation of the subgenre’s tropes have led to a playful acknowledgement and manipulation of final girl tropes. We now have much more variety in the types of final girls and female characters we’re given in slasher films, even if these movies still adhere to a heteronormative formula present in most films. A popular new final girl is Tree in Happy Death Day.

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On the surface she seems like an unlikable protagonist who becomes likable over the course of the film, although I’d argue she isn’t really that unlikable at all. She is culpable of having a hard time accepting her mother’s death and being sexually promiscuous while in college (aka being a normal twenty-something). But, the film’s narrative does ultimately guide her towards a “redeeming” heteronormative, monogamous relationship. Although this is a frustrating, Tree’s character arc is still more focused on her ability to solve the mystery and find peace with her mother’s death than her relationship with her love interest. But again, most movies struggle to create meaningful roles for women beyond their domestic relationships.

Women are…the girlfriend, the mother or the wife. Their value is determined in relation to the people they bed, marry or birth.

Brent Lang, “Study Finds Fewer Lead Roles for Women in Hollywood

Contrast this with the remake of Sorority Row where the female characters, like in the original, are culpable of prank-turned-murder that brings vengeance upon them. These characters are catty yet likable, the kind of reality show anti heroines that you root for anyway. The final girl in Sorority Row is shown to have a healthy and sexual relationship with a character who is ultimately revealed to be the killer. The movie ends by reinforcing the bonds between the women of the sorority as they defeat the villain and walk away from their sorority house which is burning to the ground in the background.

Okay yes one is in her underwear. Still a better depiction of women than most classic films!

Although horror films often feature women who are most defined by their relationships versus their professional lives, they do not stay focused on these relationships (or the pursuit of these relationships) in the same way other genres do. Thus, while these relationships are often thematically crucial, they are not what defines female characters in horror.

What About Other Types of Horror Films?

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I spent a lot of time focusing on slashers in this post, because they are so often the most maligned and targeted genre of horror when discussing the genre’s treatment of women. But horror is full of other subgenres and films that feature incredibly impressive, inspiring, relatable, and/or occasionally frightening women. Movies like Us, Hereditary, The Babadook, Raw, Good Manners, and What Keeps You Alive continue to push boundaries and expand the types of women and stories the horror genre will bring to the forefront.

As society progresses so do films. Horror films have a lot of misfires but in many regards they are ahead of the curve. I believe horror films will continue to blow other genres of out of the water when it comes to female screen time and character development. Horror films bring many things out from the shadows and one of those things is female characters.

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