I was interested in horror films before I became interested in feminism. Since my youth, horror has been my favorite film genre but as I’ve gotten older, I have started to notice an evolution in the representation of women in the genre. Despite having more roles for women compared to other film genres, horror films are oftentimes criticized for the overtly misogynistic way that female characters are represented. Classic horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby, Psycho, Nightmare on Elm Street and The Exorcist all featured female leads, but presented them as vulnerable, naïve, and powerless victims. Nowadays, modern horror films such as The Witch, It Follows, Hereditary and Midsommar have shifted that stance to portray women as survivors and strong protagonists. The primary focus of this study is to analyze the roles women play in horror films and how its representation of females has evolved over time. Women used to be underrepresented or cast into stereotypical roles in the film industry, but that has now transitioned into more nuanced performances that offer commentary on societal issues.
Since its beginnings, the horror genre victimized women. Films from the 1920s featured women who were fragile and defenseless, such as in Nosferatu (1922) when Ellen opens her window to let a vampire in, and she immediately faints from the shock. The gender roles that manifested in the 1930s began as a trend that ultimately led to almost a century of gender roles in film. Over the last century, films have depicted women as weak and men as powerful in almost all horror movies. University of Southern California Communications Professor Stacy Smith, who researches depictions of gender and race in film and TV, found that of the 5,839 characters in the top-grossing films released between 2006 and 2011, fewer than 30% were women. But there is one genre in specific where women not only take on increasingly prominent parts, but they appear and speak as often as men: horror films (Younger). As the film industry progressed over the years, it has turned women from being damsels in distress to becoming the heroines of their stories.
Nevertheless, before today’s heroines, came yesterday’s objectified females who suffered by the hands of male villains. Beginning with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror Psycho, women’s roles in horror films began to be sexualized for the pleasure of male audiences. Psycho paved the path for the birth of the slasher sub-genre by helping create the archetype of the disguised, mentally deranged killer who preys on innocent – if sexually indiscreet – young women (Horror Fandom). Psycho was so influential that many critics see it as a turning point in cinema history. However, although Psycho directly inspired slasher films, the sub-genre doesn’t officially exist until 1978s classic horror film Halloween (Vorel). Subsequently, this led to the introduction of the Final Girl – which slasher films tended to feature.
By the late 1970s, the Final Girl trope was introduced, and heavily featured in horror films. Friday the 13Th Director Sean S. Cunningham defined the concept of the Final Girl by saying, “The Final Girl in these little morality tales is the person who has embodied the moral code that society thinks allows you to go forward in life.” (Vitelli, Psychology Today.) As Caroline Madden from The Buzz explains it, the final girl is “the last one standing, and either escapes or kills the killer. Most final girls share certain characteristics – they are usually virgins that avoid the vices of the other victims, such as drugs or sex.” One of the main examples of the Final Girl is Laurie Strode from Halloween, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in four of the franchise’s films. Romeo Vitelli related the Final Girl phenomenon to rape myths that still remain in society today – where the “good girls” manage to survive, while the “bad girls” somehow deserve their gruesome deaths because of their sexual behavior.
The slasher sub-genre set a stereotypical perspective of female sexuality which was executed through the Final Girl trope as a way of killing female characters who had sex are first while women who were virginal survived until the end of the film. However, as the trope evolved, some feminists noticed that through this device, the males in the audiences were forced to identify with a woman in the climax of the movie, which in itself became a very powerful sword to wield (Hellerman). When women survived at the end of a movie, they forced men to watch them step into their own power.
One of the primary examples of Final Girl female empowerment comes from The Witch, directed by Robert Eggers. Many film critics and viewers even consider it to have set a new standard for horror films. The film tells the story of Thomasin (Played by Anya Taylor-Joy), an adolescent girl in Puritan New England. At the beginning of the film, she moves with her family away from civilization and into the wilderness. Misfortune after misfortune befalls the family and eventually, Thomasin finds herself under increasing suspicion from her parents. A major point of suspicion is her growing into female adulthood and sexuality. Ultimately, her entire family is killed and she decides to reject her Puritan lifestyle and becomes a witch. Despite being set centuries ago, the film speaks to issues we still face in modern society. In a way, it is a coming-of-age story with themes of slut-shaming and societal pressures on women, where the final scene can be interpreted as Thomasin ascending into womanhood. David Sims from The Atlantic states that “the film’s exploration of patriarchal power was the key to unlocking Thomasin’s story. As a woman in the seventeenth century, she’s entire stripped of agency. She exists only to work and help her family, and eventually be married off and bear more children.” But she is led down a different path. Historically, women who didn’t conform to the strict values of patriarchal society were labeled as witches. The Witch is praised for showcasing a young woman rejecting a patriarchal institution and gender-based suppression in order to live eternally free.
Another main example of a feminist modern horror film is Midsommar. Written and directed by Ari Aster, Midsommar is considered to have reimagined the scream queen concept. A scream queen, as Evan Romano explained in a Men’s Health article, can be many things, but we tend to think of it in terms of someone who can be easily identified with an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind horror movie performance. Urban Dictionary defines the term as “a female star of a horror film; so named because she spends a lot of time screaming.” In Midsommar, Florence Pugh gives a transformative performance as Dani. The film begins with her losing her entire family in a tragedy, and follows the story of Dani, her boyfriend Christian, and their group of friends as they go on a summer trip to Sweden. On the surface, Midsommar is a cult horror fable, but at its core, it is a tale about an unhealthy relationship. Before her family’s tragic death, Christian confesses to his friends that he wants to break up with Dani; and afterwards, he fails to provide any meaningful support, he repeatedly denies Dani’s emotions, steals another student’s thesis, speaks insensitively of Dani’s mentally ill sister, pressures Dani to take hallucinogenic drugs when she is sure she will have a bad trip, talks about her incessantly behind her back, and commit many more microaggressions. One of the ways in which Midsommar is thought to be a feminist film lies in its foregrounding of female desire and subversion of the male gaze.
Horror films of the past had been plagued with the hyper sexualization and objectifying of women as a result of the male gaze. In Midsommar, however, Dani spends the entire movie in shapeless shirts and bottoms that more so obscure her female form rather than enhance it. She doesn’t wear makeup, her hair is not done in a fancy updo, and she is neither trying to impress nor seduce anyone. She is not trying to be sexy; she is just herself. Dani is relatable for being a female character that represents not what men want to see in a woman, but what women recognize in ourselves. Additionally, when the camera focuses on Dani, it points to her face, not her form. In one scene where Christian is drugged, naked, and pushed into performing ritualistic intercourse, the room is surrounded by naked women chanting a fertility spell. The film continues its subversion of the male gaze by featuring honest, real life female bodies. Their bodies are not being exploited for men’s enjoyment to watch. Midsommar is, simply put, two-and-a-half hours of audiences witnessing Dani’s anguish, heartbreak, and reclaiming of herself. No longer do we encounter Hitchcock’s female characters who were the objects of the killer’s desires and desperately needed male heroes to save their lives – we now have women who play strong characters who have fully realized backstories (Beebe).
It is important for female audiences to see themselves represented not as weak and defenseless, but as powerful and ambitious individuals who deserve to live. A study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and J. Walter Thompson Company shows that female role models in film and TV are hugely influential in driving women to improve their lives. Historically, women have been drawn to the horror genre. Noah Berlatsky from The Guardian describes that in 2013 “The Conjuring had an audience composed of 53% women; The Purge had an audience of 56% women. Mama was 61% women. Even the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake showed to an audience that was less than half men.” This indicates a correlation between the horror genre’s interest in women, and women’s equal interest in the genre. Beth Younger explains that we have veered away from slashers and torture porn to more substantive, nuanced horror films that comment on social issues.
The Final Girl and the narrative to punish sexually active women saw a turning point with the release of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2015). The film follows Jay, a teenage girl who is pursued by a supernatural entity after a sexual encounter. Brendan Morrow believes that in fact, It Follows critiques rape culture by highlighting the trauma or how rape survivors are often treated by culture, friends, and family (Bloody Disgusting). It Follows is critically acclaimed for allowing Jay to be the kind of girl who represents women in an empowering way: she investigates, fights back against the predator, and ultimately prevails (Younger). This allowed women to see themselves to be represented as multifaceted beings, instead of being reduced to a singular emotion – fear – as it used to happen with scream queen slasher films.
How women are generally presented in horror films correlates to how they are perceived by society at the time in which the film is created. The search for cinematic gender equity will continue for years to come, but the evidence presented in this study shows the shift in horror films to feature more well-written female leads who have became stronger and more powerful has already started. As filmmakers continue to do a better job of understanding women and portraying female representation, the horror films of this day and age should be applauded for their more feminist approach to filmmaking that features strong female leads, subverts the male gaze, positions women as survivors, and continues to break the mold.
Beebe, Jessica. “How Modern Horror Movies Rescued Women From Hitchcock’s Hysteria.” ScreenRant, 3 Oct. 2020.
Hellerman, Jason. “A Deep Examination of the Final Girl Trope.” No Film School, 23 Nov. 2020.
Madden, Caroline. “The Evolution of Women in Horror Films.” The Buzz, 24 Apr. 2013.
Morrow, Brendan. “‘It Follows’ Is Not About STDs. It’s About Life As a Sexual Assault Survivor.” Bloody Disgusting, 27 Apr. 2016.
Romano, Evan. “The 23 Best Scream Queens in Horror Movie History.” Men’s Health, Men’s Health, 30 Oct. 2020.
“Scream Queens.” Urban Dictionary.
Sims, David. “How ‘The Witch’ Became a Story of Female Empowerment.” The Atlantic, 24 Feb. 2016.
“Slasher Film.” Horror Film Wiki.
Vitelli, Romeo. “How to Survive a Slasher Film.” Psychology Today, 23 Feb. 2015.
Vorel, Jim. “What Truly Was the First ‘Slasher Film’? A Paste Investigation.” Paste Magazine, 23 July 2020.
Younger, Beth. “How Horror Films Are Bringing More Gender Equality to Hollywood.” Yes! Magazine, 18 July 2017.