What exactly are feminist horror movies? And what movies would count as having feminist themes?
Horror movies have always been a lucrative avenue to explore the darker impulses and desires of humanity in a frightening, disturbing, and deliberately outlandish manner. Wes Craven once famously said: “Horror doesn’t create fear, it releases it.” And the truth is sometimes there seems to be nothing more horrifying than the singular yet dynamic experience of womanhood.
Horror has infamously not always been kind to women, with accusations of titillating exploitation of their sexuality and suffering. However, the genre allows the stories of women to be told in a primitively truthful fashion almost unreserved for more “respectable” genres that still struggle to showcase honest expressions both of and from the female perspective. As the weather cools our skin, and as the intricately carved pumpkins show up on suburban laws, here are eight feminist horror movies to watch this fall.
1. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
“What have you done to his eyes?!”
Allow us to start off with a bare-bones classic for this article about feminist horror movies. In 1968, Roman Polanski launched his third feature, Rosemary’s Baby, in Hollywood during the post-Hays Code age, where more daring and upfront stories featuring once-taboo themes of sexuality and violence were being released by major studios. One of the original feminist horror movies tells the haunting and suspenseful story of a young housewife, Rosemary (Mia Farrow), who is robbed of her agency when she moves into a complex housing a devil occult – and finds herself literally impregnated with the spawn of Satan against her will. The film places the audience squarely in the perspective of our protagonist as she finds herself increasingly isolated and rightfully paranoid the more it becomes clear everyone is utilizing her as a vessel for selfish and Satanic purposes – including her own husband.
It would be disingenuous to discuss Rosemary’s Baby without alluding to the infamous scandal of Roman Polanski drugging and assaulting a thirteen year-old girl in 1977. This inexcusable criminal wrongdoing transform Rosemary’s Baby into a meta piece, as the film follows Rosemary with empathy for her confusion, pain, and eventual discovery of the way her body was violated without her consent to host Satan’s baby. It’s almost unbelievable it was directed by a man who engaged in similar actions to the antagonists of his own movie. In a sense, the revelation of Polanski’s true character makes one of his most enduring films more timely and relevant than ever, in an era of #MeToo and where women’s reproductive rights are at the forefront of the political conversation. One thing remains certain: even 50 years later, with its increasing amount of dread and claustrophobic environment, Rosemary’s Baby is still pretty damn scary. In our current age, it is also terrifying in what it nails about how a women’s life can be so easily dictated by choices made for her and against her, with everyone else’s input mattering but her own.
2. Carrie (1976)
It would be impossible to talk about feminist horror movies without remembering the iconic image of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) drenched in pig’s blood, which destroys her pageantry appearance as Prom Queen. Even more memorable is the brutal carnage that follows Carrie’s public humiliation: after a short lifetime of endless verbal and physical abuse, she finally snaps and kills everyone at prom with her newly founded telekinetic abilities. It’s a scene that continues to awe and surprise, and not only because of the side-by-side execution utilized by director Brian DePalma, or how Sissy Spacek convincingly portrays Carrie’s loss of sanity (and humanity) with eyes that go completely dead, like a ventriloquist dummy. It’s a moment where the assailant of mass destruction still earns audience sympathy, because we’ve watched our protagonist with crippling low self-esteem being mistreated by practically everyone around her. Carrie’s inevitable fall to evil is akin to a Shakespearean tragedy.
Before it was a signature DePalma film and one of the signature feminist horror movies, Carrie was the first published novel by Stephen King, who famously threw his original manuscript in the trash before his wife convinced him to finish writing it. King didn’t honestly believe anyone would want to read a story about the terror of being a teenage girl that involved menstrual cycles, first forays into sex, and girl-on-girl bullying, but he was proven wrong. Similar topics continue to captivate the public imagination in different forms, whether it’s found on a CW teen drama or in the explosion of the young adult literature scene. Because being a teenage girl is hell on earth, and horror is all about how hell is empty and all the demons – figurative and literal – are here.
Carrie opens with the title character getting her first period at sixteen, and believing she is bleeding to death. Her fundamentalist Christian mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie, who won a well-deserved Oscar for this role) never told her about periods. For her naivety, Carrie is viciously mocked by her female classmates and physically punished by her mother. All this abuse for something her own body cannot help. It’s no coincidence that on the same day she gets her period, Carrie also gets her ability to move things with her mind (especially in moments of high duress.) Her descent into womanhood coincides with her descent to monstrosity, because a woman becoming her own person is innately seen as a threat to the societal structure.
As she discovers what her body and mind are capable of inflicting, she nearly finds acceptance among figures like her kind gym teacher, Mrs. Collins (Betty Buckley), a female classmate who regrets her bullying, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), and her kind and sensitive prom date, Tommy Ross (William Katt). Although between a mother who thinks her daughter is sinful for wanting to go to prom with a boy and reacts shocked when she finally stands up to her (“I’m going, mama. And I don’t want to talk about it anymore”), and a female classmate with an obsessive hatred of her, Chris (Nancy Allen), none of this hope lasts. The world is against Carrie. It is against her meek nature, her developing body, her basic personhood, and her right to assert herself as she finally starts growing up.
Villains are not born, they are made. If Carrie becomes a monster, it is because the world made her that way.
3. Halloween (1978)
Contrary to popular belief, Halloween is not the first slasher film. It only appears that way because it completely revolutionized the slasher sub-genre when it was released in 1978, toward the ending of the most iconic and influential decade for horror. John Carpenter’s debut smash hit is one of the trope codifiers for many of the standards of slasher movies, to the point where now such tropes (the killer is behind the unaware protagonist! Teenagers having sex about to be brutally slashed!) are regularly parodied. But it only takes one re-watch to remember why, even after dozens of lesser horror/slasher movies that were inspired by it, Halloween remains not just a great horror movie, but a great movie. It still has the power to leave one with chills when we hear Michael Myers’ heavy breathing over darkened corners he may be lurking.
But then there is Jaime Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode, one of the original final girls in its purest and most dilated forms. She’s a shy young girl overshadowed by her rambunctious and proudly sexually active female friends. She’s a virgin. She’s scared to ask out a boy to the dance. She’s great with the kids she routinely babysits. And of course, she is the only survivor that must confront the killer after all her friends have been killed right after having pre-marital sex, or before planning on having pre-marital sex. If there was a poster for the Final Girl in her original incarnation, it would be Laurie.
The Final Girl, as numerous articles and academic studies will tell you, is a problematic archetype for what it implies about female sexuality and how the ideal young woman is expected to act (demurely) and expected to maintain (virginity and purity.) And yet, Curtis portrays Laurie with endearing tenderness (and later, such acute terror) that her character feels like an authentic representation of the daunting task of being an insecure teenager. It is often forgotten that one of the screenwriters of Halloween wasn’t just Carpenter but Debra Hill (who also co-produced), who based Laurie and her friends on herself and other girls she knew in high school. At a time where stories exclusively about men told exclusively by men were the 99% majority of cinema (much of that hasn’t changed), films like Halloween– where we are inserted into the shoes of a young woman who manages to survive her violent oppressor – and characters like Laurie were game-changers. They solidified the horror genre as one where women are often the center of their stories being told, which alone can qualify Halloween as an influencer on later feminist horror movies.
The endless Halloween franchise has always proved one irrefutable fact: even when temporarily defeated, the debatably human Michael Myers somehow lives on, but so does Laurie Strode.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1986)
Feminist horror movies and Wes Craven? Yes, it is more likely than you think.
The late Wes Craven is one of the most recognizable names in the field of horror. With films like The Last House on the Left (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven helped cajole the exploitation elements of the genre into the mainstream, then updated it with Scream (1996), an affectionate satire of a sub-genre he helped popularize. Even by the standards of today, where the extremity of graphic imagery has numbed audience to onscreen depictions of violence, Craven’s movies (and the grisly fates that befalls his characters) possess the ability to truly disturb. Whether its two teenager girls being kidnapped, assaulted, and then killed in The Last House on the Left, or a nuclear American family being targeted by Midwestern cannibals in The Hills Have Eyes, Craven is no stranger to brutalizing and playing mean with his characters. That is one of the reasons his obvious affection and admiration for Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street so starkly stands out.
The premise of A Nightmare on Elm Street is so brilliant in its simplicity: teenagers are stalked and killed by a mysterious burnt figure in their dreams. The only way to seemingly survive is to wake up. The conceit is chilling because we are at our most vulnerable when we sleep, and the refuge of our dreams becomes a nightmare dependent on our gory demise. When her boyfriend and all of her friends become victims of Freddy, Nancy adapts an active role in the film with her iron determination to discover the origins of Freddy Krueger – and how to defeat him at his own sadistic games. With a neglectful law enforcement figure for a father, and a loving but alcoholic scatterbrain for a mother (who is hiding her own secrets about Freddy), Nancy finds herself on her own in her clever pursuit to take down her perpetual victimizer (which involves a series of booby traps that would make Kevin McCallister envious in their ingenuity). Her journey can be read as a hyperbolic imagining of what life is like for many teenagers: anxiety about exploring the possibilities of sex, parents who refuse to understand you on the basis that you’re just a kid, and the reality that your current set of friends are not always going to be there for you when life is difficult. You have to face the big bad world alone. It’s a feminist horror movie with a story that applies to all youth.
Craven wanted A Nightmare on Elm Street to end on a positive note, where Nancy asserts her power over Freddy (by realizing he’s just a weak, sexually depraved bully) and earns her friends and boyfriend back. The studios instead opted for a cliffhanger ending, where Freddy turns out to still be alive and attacks Nancy’s mother as retribution. It’s an ending that cheapens the coming-of-age narration and the final battle between Nancy and Freddy, and it’s an example of the classic last-minute jump scare being used in a way that’s more frustrating than affecting.
Freddy Krueger may be the character most integrated into the pop cultural lexicon of modern horror, but A Nightmare on Elm Street is ultimately Nancy’s story of triumphing over an inhuman and seemingly invincible evil. Even the maligned studio-ending does not absorb away the power of Nancy telling Freddy the unvarnished truth to his face: “You’re nothing. You’re shit.” You can’t talk about feminist horror movies without talking about Nancy.
5. The Descent (2006)
From start to finish, Neil Marshall’s The Descent is an adrenaline-pumped crazy ride. If you want to talk feminist horror movies with a strong cast and gets your heart pumping, look no further. The concept of being trapped in an underground cave (with no one knowing your whereabouts) as four friends slowly become suspicious of another under the stress is enough of an idea to sustain a movie. Add in a gaggle of hungry humanoid abominations into the mix, and you have a film that moves, thrills, and scares in equal measure.
One of the reasons The Descent is considered a golden acorn in survival-horror is its likable and memorable characters that makes the film something to enjoy, rather than endure until the bloodbath commences. Each of the five women in The Descent possess a distinctive personality that helps differentiate them: reckless Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), witty Beth (Alex Reid), responsible older sister Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and shy younger sister Sam (MyAnne Burig). The two standouts, however, are the vulnerable and mentally shaky Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), and the fearless but controlling Juo (Natalie Mendoza). They are two longtime friends with palpable tension between them ever since Sarah’s husband and young daughter died in a freak car accident that opens the film. It’s refreshing to witness a close and complex examination of a female friendship in a horror movie; a dynamic fraught with secrets and unspoken resentments. It’s not exactly a positive depiction of the bonds of sisterhood (or even a progressive one when a particular secret is inevitably discovered.) But it is one that cares enough to treat both women like genuine, flawed people instead of engaging in standard misogynistic archetypes that arises whenever a woman is pitted against another woman. It’s a feminist horror movie where each woman is a person before she is an archetype.
By the time The Descent reaches its bleak and depressing conclusion (in the original UK edition), it is clear there is no real concept of right or wrong when the question of survival and mental stability is at stake. We’re left with the impression that it is only in the darkness that our innermost selves are brought to light. And it isn’t a pretty picture. For this feminist horror movie, that’s daring.
7. Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Jennifer’s Body is one of the purest and evidential example of feminist horror movies, due to lack of subtlety but also lack of fearlessness in the story it was telling.
In the spirit of most cult-classics, Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body was viewed with more appreciation and substance only years after its initial theatrical release. When the film first hit theaters, almost every aspect of it was disparaged by critics and audiences: the performances (mainly Megan Fox), the writing, the narrative, and its lackluster reception at the North American box office. After Cody’s smash indie hit, Juno (2006), the follow-up of Jennifer’s Body seemed especially disappointing. But in the last decade, the film has been reevaluated as a feminist horror movie classic we took for granted in 2009. This was before conversations about sexual harassment and power dynamics between men and women became part of the mainstream fabric in our discussion of gender. Plus, Cody admits executives wanted to market the film more towards boys lusting after Fox more than market it at girls who could relate to the female protagonists.
Either way, the story ends the same: Jennifer’s Body has been re-reviewed for what it has to say about the paradigm of the Madonna/Whore complex, the revenge fantasy against men who objectify and attack women, and the nuances of friendship (with hints of something more) between teenage girls. When Megan Fox’s Jennifer is used as a sacrificial pawn to Satan by an emo-indie band (who mistakenly believe her to be a virgin), she instead becomes possessed by the devil. As a result, she starts eating teenage boys. Needless to tell you: it’s awesome. Her best friend, Needy (Amanda Seyfried) soon notices something is decidedly off about her best friend.
Jennifer’s Body is not a remarkable movie; it has trouble balancing it’s horrific-comedic tone to the overall detriment of what is actually a sneakily intelligent film that, in a sense, was ahead of its time. When it comes to feminist horror movies, this one understands that before Jennifer was a “monster”, she was a victim of the senseless cruelty and selfishness of a group of men who wanted to make it big in the music scene. Similar to Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby, Jennifer’s basic right to her body is a mere casualty in the greater picture. It speaks volumes that in a movie featuring demonic cannibalism, the scariest scene in Jennifer’s Body is Jennifer screaming and crying for help when she realizes the danger she is in before the Satanic ritual.
It’s the type of horror and powerlessness unfortunately familiar to women everywhere. Jennifer’s Body got something right in 2009. If only we were paying proper attention. Feminist horror movies really deserve more love.
8. The Babadook (2014)
Grief, trauma, and depression are the real monsters in Jennifer Kent’s Australian film debut, The Babadook. Without them, the monster in question would not exist. He feeds off the unpleasant emotions of Amelia (Emie Davis), a widowed single mother with a troublesome child, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who may be disturbed – or genuinely seeing something that she cannot (at first). Feminist horror movies often feature timely themes, and The Babadook has one of the most popular of all: motherhood.
It’s melancholy color palette featuring neutral and dark shades of blues, the tired and sunken eyes of Amelia, and the endless drama that occurs because of Samuel’s poor emotional regulation, The Babadook is an emotionally draining but impressive watch even before the storybook monster makes his first appearance. Without words but plenty of action, it clearly demonstrates how Amelia’s love for her son is so hindered by the various way he frustrates her with his behavior. When he hugs her, she instinctively pushes him away, before looking shocked at her unwillingness to accept affection from her own child. Not to mention the unaddressed grief of losing her husband the same day Sam was born, and the seed of resentment that festered inside of her as a result of this tragedy she pretends is over. Her denial is what powers the entitled Babadook to enter her home, and his presence becomes more potent the more Amelia’s mental health deteriorates. It is not just the Babadook she has to face, but her self if she hopes to save her and her son – before it is too late, and she becomes the destruction of them both.
Motherhood is a running theme in feminist horror movies. Society has always placed high, almost divinely expectations on mothers to be the epitome of maternal instinct, selfless love, and perpetual devotion. Horror has carved out a space to tell stories about the perils, dangers, and grueling reality that is often being a mother, from The Exorcist (1973) to Bird Box (2018.) Movies such as these are unafraid to portray these woman as understandably flawed but always human matriarchal figures, and shows how parenting is a tough-as-hell job where one can never hope to attain perfection. The Babadook doesn’t antagonize Amelia. It looks on her with increasing sympathy and understanding that this is a woman who is not doing okay, which concerns people in her life such as her sister and co-workers.
With creaking floorboards, doors opening on their own accord, and a guttural voice that announces itself at night, The Babadook is a genuinely creepy watch. It is also a feminist horror movie that tells a meaningful story about how trauma and grief are powerful forces more daunting than any spooky monster, but they are forces we can learn to live with.
Feminist horror movies – and there is endless debate on what such a term legitimately means – sometimes have overt or underlying themes that can inspire meaningful discourse on one of the scariest experiences of all – being a woman.
If you want more feminist horror movies we recommend: Scream, The Craft, Teeth, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Raw, and The Witch. Feminist horror movies keep kicking ass, guys. Get out there and watch all of them as proof.
Featured Image Source: http://io9.gizmondo.com/the-babadook-is-the-best-movie-you’ll-only-want-to-watch-1664207611
Sarah is an English and Communications major at Pace University, Pleasantville. She enjoys writing fiction, watching horror movies, and listening to the Hamilton soundtrack loudly enough that she annoys people on public transportation.