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Women in Horror

I thought I’d spice it up and share the paper I wrote about feminism in horror movies.  I got an A.  I don’t necessarily believe all the theory I present, but it's interesting anyway.

Fear of the Feminine

“All they want to see is demented madmen running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins.?

Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), Fright Night

The horror film is one of the least respected genres of cinema, and yet many of the values of culture today are shown within the context of horror. Scary movies reveal what frightens society most through monstrous representations and gore directed at victims who are feared by the public. These films show heavy symbolism especially in the portrayal of females and femininity, through images of sexual intercourse, fear of castration, and the strength of females. Horror films, and specifically the slasher subgenre, are famous for portraying women as hypersexual damsels in distress who are usually murdered within the first five minutes as punishment for their indiscretions. This tactic is used to great effect in such films as Friday the 13th and Halloween. Another standard of horror is the depiction of females as antagonists, which is a reflection of men’s pathological fear of women and menstruation, resulting in castration anxiety. The Exorcist and Carrie are both good examples of making the female monstrous and horrifying. However, in recent years, there has been a positive step within the horror genre toward the heroic woman in films. In movies such as The Descent and A Nightmare on Elm Street, women can be seen defeating typically male villains and exhibiting strength and intelligence. Women in horror films have come a long way, moving from victim to heroine, and I think that this change signals the acceptance of the power of women in society and can only be a step forward for feminism.

A horror film is defined as any movie specifically designed to cause fear, anxiety, or discomfort through a variety of monsters, supernatural beings, or frightening situations (Rasmussen 1). But behind all the blood, gore, and mayhem, horror films reflect a wide variety of societal views through symbolism and victim choice. The female subject is shown in horror movies in different ways through time and I believe that the present portrayal of the feminine shows progress toward acceptance and equality between the sexes (Thornham 251). Women are beginning to come into their own in the horror genre, showing that they are as strong as men and are not the sexual objects they were once perceived as in classic horror. Slasher films and films with women as villains are still being made, but the force and power of women in horror cannot be ignored (Thornham 238). Although much progress is still needed, this is a step in a positive direction and can only signal more change to come.

Women as victims have a long history in horror cinema, popularized in such classic gothic horror films as Dracula and Frankenstein (Freeland 4). These films portrayed women as frail, beautiful creatures needing to be rescued by the male protagonist from the clutches of the vaguely sexual male villain. But the subgenre only truly became popular (and disturbing) with the introduction of the slasher film, which shows a murderer stalking mainly female victims with a knife or other weapon, brutally murdering these sexually independent women very early in the film (Thornton 236). The first true slasher film is widely acknowledged to be Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece about a psychotic killer of women who is obsessed with his own mother (Psycho). In all films following, the phallic knife used as the standard method of murder speaks volumes about the symbolic punishment for these women. Because most of these females are shown early in the movie as sexually active, they are guaranteed to die first (Thornton 238). The fear of a sexually independent woman is revealed through her death, when the male killer thrusts his knife into her, taking away her sexual power through the symbolic rape of her body. “Horror is cultural apparatus for keeping the sexually active woman in her place? (Badley 102). With the knife’s penetration, the sexually frustrated male serial killer is taking away all of the woman’s sexuality and showing his power. In the majority of slasher films, this formula of the male killer targeting female victims is used to repress women and take away any power they may have had, thereby making them non-threatening to men because they hold no sexual control (Freeland 185). Male sexuality can then be shown through the act of murder, since most killers in slasher films are sexually repressed themselves (Freeland 187). Only through penetration and murder can these men find sexual freedom.

The women in slasher films are often objectified and shown as nothing more than sex objects. For example, in the Friday the 13th series, many of the women are seen half clothed and hyper-sexualized, taking away the audience’s ability to sympathize with them because they are seen as less valuable. The plot of the films takes place at a summer camp, which makes the women easy targets to be picked off by the killer, who wants revenge after drowning as a boy because the camp counselors were not watching him (Friday the 13th). The full rage of the murderer comes out most strongly in the cases of the females because of the inadequacy he feels as a male (Clover 32). Classic slasher films usually show a direct cause and effect link between sex and death, with murder serving as a symbolic punishment for any kind of immoral intercourse. “Killing those who seek or engage in unauthorized sex amounts to a generic imperative of the slasher film? (Clover 34). The symbolism illustrates a kind of unconscious moral lesson to the viewer that if he or she strays from the path of good behavior, the result could be death.

Another staple of the horror genre is the classic 1978 film Halloween, which chronicles the tale of Michael Myers, the demented killer bent on the massacre of his younger sister (Halloween). When Michael cannot reach his sister in order to slaughter her, he substitutes other young women in her place in order to justify killing them (Clover 24). Myers does not seem to care whether he kills the right girl; indeed, all females seem equal to him and killing any number of them does not bother him. He is a killing machine and nothing can truly stop him, not even the ingenuity of the main female character, who is able to repeatedly injure him but can never quite get rid of him (Clover 30). This seems to prove the idea of the superiority and strength of men over women and the fact that the males in horror films always triumph over the females. Women are shown as being weak, inferior, and less intelligent, and male killers in slasher films can never be defeated by the heroines. Slasher films usually promote the ideals of male superiority and the defeat of the feminine, but more recent films reject these stereotypes.

The slasher genre does not represent the only portrayal of females in horror cinema. Horror movies eventually moved on to newer representations of women as villains, the main source of evil in the film. These women represented the fears men associated with the female sex, and they became more terrifying than their male counterparts because of their lack of femininity and their portrayal of normally masculine behaviors. Because these women deviated from the norm, it was easier for men to see them as demonic or sinister (Thornham 256). Yet the female as villain also symbolizes the male fear of menstruation, evidenced by the large amounts of blood surrounding these characters. Although male killers in horror movies are also surrounded by blood, the association of blood with the female sex in modern horror cinema confirms her connection to sin and evil. Many horror films define women’s sexuality as “the source of all evil and menstruation as the sign of sin? (Thornham 256). Women as villains become synonymous with horror, shame, and sin because they are the source of blood.

Many horror films such as The Thing, Poltergeist, and Videodrome use rich symbolic images to represent the female genitalia in order to frighten the audience (Thornham 261). The vaginal representations in horror cinema usually give birth to some horrible monster or suck in some unsuspecting victim, showing the fear especially of the mother’s womb. These images terrify audiences because of their association with the “black hole? of the mother’s womb, which proves to men the concept of castration. The empty space seems to remind the male audience about what is missing. Barbara Creed explains that the main reason why men are also frightened of menstruating females is because of castration anxiety (Thornham 256). The woman’s body becomes the symbol of the incomplete male because of her lack of a penis, and as a result, she must bring her rage against others in the form of murder and horror because of her jealousy. The male sees his own castrated self in the part of the woman because of what she is missing, so he portrays her as evil and wicked.

One of the most famous representations of woman as villain in a horror film is that of Carrie, the shy, quiet high school student who suddenly develops telekinetic powers and uses them to take her revenge on the other students at prom (Carrie). Carrie, based on the book by Stephen King, was one of the earlier horror films to show the woman fighting back, and even though she was clearly evil, female audiences seemed to cheer on her rampage because they understood her pain (Freeland 57). The first scene of the film shows Carrie getting her first period, with her powers developing soon after (Carrie). Carrie’s power seems to come from her menstrual cycle, which is why she causes so much fear within the male sex (Clover 3). Men fear a woman’s sexual power and the fact that one day women could become equal to men using their sexuality. Carrie’s behavior only becomes evil once she has fully accepted her feminine power, showing the male fear of female domination (Clover 4). Contrasting slasher films, which depict women as weak and repressed, Carrie and her fellow female villains become the strong characters, so men must represent them as evil and strange. They are seen as abnormal because it is unusual to see a woman with that kind of power. Carrie triumphed over the stereotypes of classic horror by becoming a female villain that an audience could understand because she started out as a victim.

One of the most memorable scenes of Carrie is the climax at the high school prom, when a bucket of pig’s blood is dropped on Carrie in order to embarrass her, although the prank backfires when she slaughters her classmates (Carrie). Creed sees the pig’s blood as a symbol of menstruation because of its occurrence during a moment of intense pleasure and in a time of Carrie’s life when she is undergoing a great change (Thornham 256). Throughout the film, women are also referred to as pigs, and the flow of the pig’s blood represents the shame associated with menstruation and the beginning of womanhood. It is especially fitting that Carrie first uses her powers for evil (representing her passage into womanhood) immediately after being drenched in blood, becoming truly wicked only when associated with menstruation.

Another great example of the woman as a villain is shown in The Exorcist. Widely acknowledged as the scariest film of all time, The Exorcist tells the story of a young girl, Regan, who becomes possessed by the devil and must be exorcised by a priest in order to save her soul (The Exorcist). The film follows the same fear of menstruation, since Regan is possessed just before reaching puberty and she is transformed by the demon just as she would be by womanhood. But the change that Regan experiences in the film represents the complete opposite: through demonic possession, she becomes more masculine, with a deep voice, aggressive speech, and great physical strength (Clover 103). Regan’s body becomes perverted and “the foulness of woman is signified by her putrid, filthy body? (Thornham 256). She is seen as less of a woman and the corruption of her innocence and femininity provides the terror of most of the film. There is some terrible power seen when the young, innocent girl is transformed into a snarling, masculine beast because it is so unnatural. Males fear the power of females especially when females become more masculine, so Regan as a woman is seen as disgusting, dirty, and strange.

The film presents Regan’s predicament as a direct result of her lack of a father or any other male influence in her life, since she is raised by a single mother. Once possessed, Regan can only be saved by another male, the priest who becomes her new father figure (Thornham 256). She is shown as both a victim and a villain, and a woman in her situation can only find redemption in the male sex, according to the film. The film serves as a “lesson on what happens to the woman who drifts out of the orbit of male control? (Clover 103). Regan’s savior, Father Damian Karras, has himself lost religion and only through Regan can he regain his faith. In effect, he uses Regan for his own means and her pain brings him strength (Clover 88). Even the demon oppressing Regan is male, so she is truly being pushed from all sides by male influences, whether good or bad. Her life and her fate lie in the hands of men and she has no control over her own destiny. This signifies the desire of the male sex for control over females, again because of the fear that women will gain power in society (Clover 102). Regan made such a compelling victim/villain because of her original innocence and femininity, but it was her eventual masculinity that caused terror.

In recent years, horror films have taken a better turn toward equality for women as heroines. The concept of women as heroines has been used in many older horror films, but the women in those films were usually portrayed as weak, frail, and dependent on men. They represented innocence and beauty, often becoming the sexual fantasy of the film’s main villain, with no chance of saving themselves without male intervention (Rasmussen 7). But the women of modern horror can take care of themselves and do not rely on males for help. They utilize their femininity in order to defeat male villains and their strength frightens men because they hold the power in these films. Although slasher films and films with women as villains still exist and are made quite often, the occurrence of heroine horror has also grown into a powerful force in the modern genre.

An earlier example of the strong woman in horror actually occurs in a classic slasher film, A Nightmare on Elm Street. In the film, a monstrous child molester named Freddy Krueger stalks teenagers in their dreams for revenge after being burned alive by their parents (A Nightmare on Elm Street). Although the other female characters are murdered, the film’s heroine, Nancy, is the only one to figure out Freddy’s method and motives, and therefore is the only one to survive, even appearing in two sequels before being killed off (A Nightmare on Elm Street). As a character, Nancy is interesting because she could have become just like any other disposable woman in a slasher film, but she rises above the stereotype and becomes a heroine, showing courage in the face of evil. Nancy counters Freddy’s masculinity by using her own intelligence and strength against him, showing him her power and control as a woman. “When he enters the house, she dares him to come at her, then charges him in direct attack? (Clover 38). Nancy is a girl who is not afraid to fight for her life and believing in her own strength saves her in the end from Freddy’s clutches. At the beginning of the film, she seems like any other girl in a slasher movie, but by the end she has accepted her role and uses her feminine strength against the villain.

One scene in the film seems to show Freddy’s supposed power over Nancy and the fact that she is unafraid to fight back. After her first encounter with Krueger, Nancy takes a bath in order to rest from her stressful day and falls asleep in the tub (A Nightmare on Elm Street). The audience does not realize she is dreaming until a clawed hand rises between her open legs in the bathtub. The symbolism of Freddy’s intentions in this scene is obvious: as a male, he feels he may dominate Nancy and take advantage of her (Clover 76). Nancy is completely exposed, vulnerable, and powerless. But Freddy underestimates the power of women, a mistake that many other men in modern horror films have made, and it becomes his downfall. Nancy uses his own power against him, representing the ability of the female to use the phallic weapon against the man, meeting him on his own terms (Clover 49). Freddy, as a male, fears Nancy’s ability to abandon her femininity and become like him in order to fight back, in effect using his sexual repression and deviance against him. This is a common theme in horror films that portray women as heroines and I believe that this trend will only continue to show the strength of the female sex.

A more recent example of the courageous female in horror cinema showcases feminism and women’s strength without including the oppressive male villain. This is important because it shows that women need neither male help nor male hindrance to achieve their goals. The Descent, released in 2005, chronicles a group of women as they explore a remote series of caves in the Appalachians, eventually becoming trapped after a large cave-in. Only after searching for a way out do they discover that they are not alone: they are actually surrounded by humanoid creatures that have evolved underground and stalk them through the caves (The Descent). The film features only female main characters and each is shown as an independent, confident adventurer. Exploring these caves, with wide tunnels that obviously symbolize female genitalia and exploring their own femininity, the group must escape without male aid from an enemy that is not purely masculine. The women use their femininity to their own advantage in order to exploit the weaknesses of the creatures. In a nod to the final scene from Carrie, one of the women emerges from a pool of blood, covered head to toe just as Carrie was after the prom, which represents her acceptance of her womanhood, using the symbol of menstruation against the enemy (The Descent). The women of the film are not frail damsels in distress and they hold their own in situations that show their physical and mental strength. They don’t need the help of men because they hold their own power in a negative situation. The film is interesting because it does not include any male characters, but the women still try to overcome the monsters on their own. Because of their strong personalities and independence, the group of women is able to confirm that they can be just as courageous as their male counterparts, proving that a woman can make it in the world without the help of a man.

The Descent and A Nightmare on Elm Street indicate a new movement in modern horror toward equality between the sexes. While I don’t believe that sexist horror films will every fully disappear, I think that the direction the genre is moving toward is more positive than it has been in the past. Women are being accepted as legitimate heroes with true strength and willpower in a traditionally chauvinistic field of cinema. No longer are men the saviors of the genre. Women are beginning to play an important part in horror, not just becoming easy victims. However, many still see horror as a negative impact in film, mainly because of the extreme violence and degradation against women. But one could argue that many different genres show excessive violence as well, and women are not portrayed as they once were in classic horror. The times have changed and the portrayal of women has changed along with them. I agree that horror is not a genre for everyone, but it should at least be appreciated as a legitimate art form within cinema. If scary movies continue to move in the positive direction they have been leaning toward, the genre may become more respected and equal to other genres of cinema.

Through the medium of the modern horror film, one can view the real fears that grip society even today. Although there may not be a real Freddy Krueger or Carrie, scary movies reveal what haunts culture most. The power of women and femininity is a recurring theme in horror cinema. By portraying women as victims or villains, men have repressed the true power of the female because they fear it. Through the symbolism of penetration and menstruation, these films have tried to show women as tools of only sin and sex. But recent films have broken through the stereotypes and shown women as heroines, taking their lives into their own hands. The women of modern horror do not need the help of male figures and they often triumph over male villains. Horror cinema has come a long way since the classic slasher flick, but there is still much more to accomplish. Although sexism in horror movies may never be fully vanquished, great films have been made showing the strength and equality of women. If this trend continues, horror films may see a day when women are no longer portrayed as weak, frail, or inherently evil. Perhaps once women are respected within horror films, the genre itself will become a more legitimate form of cinema.


Works Cited

Badley, Linda. Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic. USA: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Carrie. Dir. Brian De Palma. Redbank Films, 1976.

Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.

The Descent. Dir. Neil Marshall. Celador Films, 2005.

The Exorcist. Dir. William Friedkin. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1973.

Freeland, Cynthia A. The Naked and the Undead. USA: Westview Press, 2000.

Friday the 13th. Dir. Sean S. Cunningham. Georgetown Productions, 1980.

Fright Night. Dir. Tom Holland. Perf. Roddy McDowall. Columbia Pictures, 1985.

Halloween. Dir. John Carpenter. Compass International Pictures, 1978.

A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dir. Wes Craven. New Line Cinema, 1984.

Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Shamley Productions, 1960.

Rasmussen, Randy Loren. Children of the Night: The Six Archetypal Characters of Classic Horror Films. USA: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1998.

Thornham, Sue. Feminist Film Theory. New York: New York University Press, 1999.


You certainly have some agreeable opinions and views. Your blog provides a fresh look at the subject.

very interesting article some facts are very surprising for me. i like your blog....