On this month's Special Page:

Joel Foster writes about women's roles in horror movies


Nicholas Vince
Elizabeth Massie
Joe R. Lansdale
Christopher Golden
Mort Castle
Josh Malerman

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About Joel Foster

Joel Foster is a freelance writer and editor at KillTheCableBill. He writes on the topics of entertainment, the horror genre, pop culture, film, business and technology. 

How Horror Changed the Narrative for Women in Film

by Joel Foster

In the 21st Century, there should be fewer excuses for entertainment to limit women's roles. But the numbers don't lie. According to Women in TV and Film, top-grossing films with female protagonists dropped dramatically from 40% in 2019 to 29% in 2020, while female speaking roles only climbed two percent between 2019 and 2020. Yet, in examining the evolution of complex female characters in film, horror continues to be the go-to genre that increasingly amplifies women's stories.

Every year, Geena Davis's media foundation See Jane releases research breaking down statistics of women and minority groups' roles in media. In 2017, one of their studies revealed that horror achieved the highest level of women's roles with (55.9%), with action (9.4%), adventure (23.6%), and comedy (28.7%) genres falling behind. While other genres struggle to make space for women, horror is leading the way.

This isn't to say that women in horror have always experienced "perfect" representation. But more than any other genre, it exemplifies how women can break free from male-centered stories to evolve from victim to survivor, perpetrator, and everything in-between. As viewers, we have the ability to compare and contrast and can easily stream horror films - old and new, on a number of platforms.

When the genre took Classic Hollywood by storm in the early 1900s, women mostly made their mark with a blood-curdling scream. While male stars could lather up in haunting make-up or play into the heroics, women portrayed damsels distress like Fay Wray held captive by a giant ape in "King Kong," or objects of desire in "Dracula" and "The Phantom of the Opera."

This narrow role of women didn't shift until director Alfred Hitchcock's films in the 1930s, but not necessarily for the better. He wasn't joking when he once declared "torture the women" as the majority of his films centered on men manipulating women or the latter unmasking a man's nefarious identity and barely escaping with their lives. His reputation also preceded him with the cruel way he treated his female stars. Despite how Hitchcock regarded female characters and the actresses he worked with, the latter found redemptive qualities in films still worth studying today.

However, from the 1940s to 1960s, the film industry still struggled to propel a horror heroine to the same level as Hitchcock or actor Vincent Price in the mainstream field. It would ultimately take the popularity of the television age, the severity of the Vietnam War, and the disintegration of the traditional film studio system to usher in a new era of storytellers.

Horror started relying less on creature features and opted for other darker themes. Films like "Rosemary's Baby," "The Exorcist," and "Black Sunday" opened the floodgates of stories to examine religion, sexuality, motherhood, and femininity concerning women's roles in the world.

In the 1970s and 1980s, classics like "Friday the 13th" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" gave birth to the "final girl" trope. While the virginal heroine who is clean of sin ultimately survives as the last girl standing, the sexually active teenagers die or are killed as a symbolic punishment for their immorality. Depending on how a director or writer used it, the trope could be an utter cliché or revolutionary.

But things are getting better for women in horror films. Much better.

Despite how controversial the final girl trope became from the 1980s to today, it also kicked started successful female-led franchises that audiences can't get enough of. Director John Carpenter's "Halloween" starring Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Brode surviving a home invasion inspired Wes Craven for his death-defying heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in "Scream." Brode and Prescott started as final girls with their purity shielding them from death but grew up to be mature survivors who inspire fans to survive similar situations. Additionally, both series will release new installments set for 2021 and 2022, respectively.

Where other genres tend to relegate female characters to the bodacious action star or love-struck ingenue, horror films allow women to push the envelope from a heroine to an antagonist as well as being influential voices behind the camera.

It’s also important to note that the horror genre has enabled many female characters to be the hero and not the victim. Many are smart, often using their intelligence to get them out of tough situations, yet still maintaining an essence of vulnerability and humanity. A classic example of this is Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Ellen has the courage to hunt down the alien, but of course is also fearful of what this entails.

These female characters show they can take care of themselves. They’re resourceful, empathetic and will do anything it takes to fiercely protect those they love. Another example being single mother Rachel in The Ring played by Naomi Watts.

Even when men put their stamp on female-centered horror films or the subject matter pushes the boundaries, horror validates the full spectrum of women's emotions and experiences. Whether it's a college student escaping a toxic relationship in "Midsommar," a wife and mother fighting off her body snatcher in "Us," or a newlywed bride outwitting her in-laws' murderous game of hide-and-seek in "Ready or Not," horror challenges the limits of keeping women on a storytelling leash.

We must also recognize the importance of women behind the camera. Australian writer and director Jennifer Kent is one notable female whose debut film The Babadook certainly paved the way for more women to branch out and take more risks within the horror territory. Kent received much praise for her ability to portray emotionally complex storylines and characters. The film was a huge success has become renowned in the LGBTQ community.

Out of all other film genres, horror examines the human experience under a microscope where society plays an intricate role and forces characters to confront their greatest fears. By expanding what female characters and females behind the camera are capable of, horror is blazing a trail against gender norms and letting women finally control the narrative.