Women and horror movies have a pretty complicated history. It seems that if you’re in a horror movie and happen to be a woman, you’ll have to tread very lightly, or you’ll end up meeting a pretty grisly fate. It’s nearly Halloween, so what better time to take a look at horror movie heroines over the years. From Fay Wray’s non-stop screams in the original King Kong, to the comatose Barbra in Night of the Living Dead, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, women have come a long way in horror movies. These five (and a half) horror heroines show how women have slowly become more powerful horror figures in control of their own destinies.
Marion and Lila Crane as played by Janet Leigh and Vera Miles in Psycho (1960)
Psycho, arguably Alfred Hitchock’s greatest film, is so entrenched in the annals of pop culture that to uninitiated viewers it has lost some of its shock value. But still, how many movies kill off their apparent protagonist less than halfway through? After absconding with a large sum of money from her place of employment, Marion Crane takes shelter from a torrential storm at the Bates Motel, where she meets the strange proprietor Norman Bates. Marion is a bad girl; in the film’s opening sequence, she is shown to be having an affair with a married man, and even her final fatal shower, showing her gasping with pleasure as she scrubs her body, is rife with sexuality. By contrast, audiences in 1960 probably would have rooted more for her more demure sister Lila, who proves herself to be somewhat brave without being immodest. These two represent the duality of women in horror movies – “bad” girls die and “nice” girls get to live.
Ellen Ripley as played by Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979)
The same year that Jamie Lee Curtis appeared as the archetypal horror heroine (and “nice girl”) Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s Halloween, Sigourney Weaver appeared as a far cooler horror heroine. Alien may be a science-fiction movie on the surface, but it’s all monster movie frights once there is a full size Xenomorph tormenting the crew on-board spaceship Nostromo. The monster in question attacks in a way resembling penetration, which was definitely no accident on the part of creator H. R. Giger. Before too long, warrant officer Ellen Ripley is the only one on the ship still alive, and she is all-too-aware that somewhere within the dark bowels of the ship there is a creeping creature that is out for blood. In Alien, there remains some unfortunate objectification of Ripley, but in the end she proves herself to a smart, strong and independent heroine.
Clarice Starling as played by Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
You could try to argue that Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning classic is more of a “thriller” than a “horror” movie, but watch the film’s climax and you will be tingling with fear. Clarice Starling, an ambitious FBi agent in training has relied on her intelligence and her guts to finally track down the killer of young women knows as Buffalo Bill. Along the way she has earned the respect of the brilliant but deranged Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector, who recognises her inner bravery and confidence. The nail-biting finale, that finds Clarice descending into the lair of the killer himself, and coming face-to-face with his bizarre and gruesome life, is the ultimate test. In the dark, he reaches out for her, he craves to take her femininity for his own, but she shows him that she is more than capable of defending herself.
Eli as played by Lina Leandersson in Let the Right One In (2008)
This Swedish vampire flick is one of the most original horror movies of recent years. Based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote the screenplay, Let the Right One In stars Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar, who has just moved to a new town following his parents’ divorce. Lonely and struggling to make friends, Oskar becomes aware that there is another child living in his block of flats. When he meets Eli, they immediately become friends, but he is aware that there is something unusual about his stoic friend. What’s so special about this strange blend of horror and romance is that Eli is a “monster,” but she’s not monstrous. Eli is the heroine who helps the meek male lead become more assertive, and saves him when he is in greatest danger. This film smartly reverses not only expected human/monster, insider/outside dichotomies, but also the deeply ingrained gender roles of horror movies.
Jaime “Jay” Height as played by Maika Monroe in It Follows (2014)
There are many different interpretations of the events in the dreamlike supernatural horror movie It Follows. It may be an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases or for the lingering effects of sexual abuse, but it is very clear that it is entirely centred around the sexual agency of its lead character Jay. The film smartly and eloquently plays with the fear of sex that has long been an established trope in the horror genre, especially when it comes to young women. Jay is a quiet girl living in a sleepy part of suburbia. She meets a handsome man and goes on a few dates with him, until eventually he sexually assaults her. Before fleeing he warns her that he has passed on a curse to her, and an ephemeral creature (that can take the form of anyone, even her friends) will follow her until it kills her or until she too passes on the curse. It Follows is a frightening and almost overwhelming experience, but by the film’s end, Jay is a much stronger person. She has, in a way, overcome her demons, and she has found a way to live with them.