Horror as a movie genre has been in existence since the late 1800s. It has been a vehicle that allows audiences to experience their most significant fears from the comfort of a cinema or couch and it has done so ever since. But where male protagonists were depicted as brave heroes swooping in to save the day and defeating the evils of the world, the female characters did not fare quite so well.
Heroines: pretty but powerless
It seems to be a tradition in classic horror movies to portray the female characters, even when they are protagonists, as merely helpless ingénues. Incapable of saving themselves, they spend a lot of time running and screaming and often end up as very pretty but dead victims.
In Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), what starts as a promising female character Marion Crane (she steals money from her boss to help bail out her boyfriend) soon meets her untimely end as she is stabbed to death in the infamous shower scene.
The Creature From the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, 1954) also seems to want to give the beautiful Kay Lawrence a chance by getting Lawrence to defend herself by smashing her attacker in the head with a lamp.
However, when she is captured by the monster she becomes weak and feeble and her male counterparts must come to her rescue. Unfortunately, this theme continues through the 60s and most of the 70s (The Birds and Night of the Living Dead are a few more examples). However, the late 1970s ushered in a new era for females in horror.
Strong and Smart…and a Lot Less Screaming
Around the late 70s and early 80s, horror directors seem to have had a light-bulb moment regarding how they presented their heroines. From then on we see a new breed of female champions. They have intelligence and common sense. They scream less and aren’t afraid to look dirty and dishevelled if it results in a chance of survival. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) is a great example of this. Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, on paper, doesn’t come across as someone who would fair well in a life or death situation.
The quietly spoken 17-year-old merely tasked with babysitting for the night ends up risking her own life to stop the evil Michael’s murderous rampage, protecting two children and getting badly injured in the process. No men to step in and steal the glory, no running off screaming into the distance leaving others to clean up the mess, this motif is replicated throughout the 80s.
Films such as The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) have characters like Wendy Torrance, who comes out of the shadows of being seen as merely a housewife and steps up to do whatever is necessary to protect her child. Then we have Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), which shows Ellen Ripley out-thinking and eventually outliving her male counterparts after battling evil acid-spewing space monsters. The spate of courageous heroines doesn’t end there.
Young but Not Dumb
The 90s and 00s continued the independent women trend, although they tended to lean towards more youthful characters who the audience might assume incapable of self-defence, yet ultimately prove everyone wrong. The series of films Scream (Wes Craven et al, from 1996) introduces us to Sidney Prescott, a quiet, unassuming student who has to defend herself against multiple attacks from a knife-wielding maniac in a Halloween costume.
The series also introduces us to the fundamentals of what not to do in a life or death situation, such as never run upstairs, never go investigate something by yourself, and never say ‘I’ll be right back’. These are all things that seem like common sense but are typically featured in horror movies, especially those involving teens.
Films that followed after this have characters that are increasingly self-aware and that make more well-informed choices, which reduces the risk that they put themselves at. For example, in Cabin in the Woods (Joss Whedon/Drew Goddard, 2011), a ritual to help stop the destruction of mankind goes awry when the ‘virgin’ Dana (who stereotypically dies quite early on in most horror films) survives until the end and then decides that humanity isn’t worth saving.
In this instance, one of her male friends also survives (until they are both killed by the apocalypse), but he is in no fit state to be of use by the finale.
Foreign Horror Follows the Trend
Foreign horror is slightly different in that as brave and resourceful as the female characters are, they still often meet an untimely end. Japanese horror Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998, remade for Western audiences as The Ring in 2002) revolves around a woman that has to investigate a cursed video tape after watching it and is told that she only has seven days left to live.
Although she does have male help, she is the driving force behind uncovering the history behind the video and trying to break the curse before succumbing to it. By the end, it appears that she has succeeded in her mission although she has had to spread the curse and possibly sentence others to death in the process.
Rec (Jaume Balaguero, 2007, released a year later with an American cast as Quarantine) is a Spanish-found footage horror in which a reporter and her less than enthusiastic cameraman are assigned to report on a disturbance in an apartment block. This rapidly turns into a mass infection of the residents, causing them to become aggressive and almost superhuman.
Our heroine puts up an impressive fight surviving right until the end but is last seen being dragged into the darkness by one of these creatures. Sometimes, no matter how hard they try, the forces of evil prove too much even for the strongest female.
Age is Just a Number
A list of horror movie heroines would not be complete without an honourable mention for one of the most versatile horror actresses to ever grace the silver screen. She has had some small roles in several scary movies over the years (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Amityville: A New Generation, and Wes Craven‘s New Nightmare to name a few).
Still, it is her most recent films that have brought her out of the supporting cast and into centre stage. Whether she’s playing a supposedly fragile elderly lady haunted by the effects of a cursed game she played as a child (The Midnight Man, Travis Zariwny, 2016), or a psychic leading a team of paranormal investigators to rid the world of demon spirits trying to possess humans in order to break through to our world from theirs (the Insidious film series, James Wan, from 2010), her characters always come across as strong, self-sufficient, and fully in command of whatever situation she is presented with.
At her age (68, not that it matters) many of us would probably consider our careers over, but she is, thankfully, still going from strength to strength.
There are still aspects of horror heroines that filmmakers could tweak. Giving them more appropriate clothing and footwear would be a good start, as well as not having them be underestimated before they even try to prove themselves. But if recent years are anything to go by, things are definitely heading in the right direction.
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