Celebrate Women in Horror Month with a rundown of the genre greats.
Did you know that it’s the ninth annual Women in Horror month? Until recently, neither did I, but if there are two things I’m always ready to celebrate, they’re women and horror. As you may have noticed, the horror genre is a staff favorite here at Film School Rejects, and I personally am a firm believer that any movie can be made better by becoming more real through representation of people like me and you. So if you’re game, read on to learn more about the history of women in horror from A(merican Mary) to Z(ombie, Sheri Moon).
Sister Canadian filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska are the minds behind Twisted Twins Productions and this unpredictable, sadistically satisfying flick. The surgical thriller stars Katharine Isabelle of Ginger Snaps fame in an equally tenacious role as Mary Mason, a broke medical student who begins taking on some shady side work to pay the bills. American Mary is most memorable for its look inside the body modification community (think split tongues, voluntary amputation, and the like), but it’s also a bracing and brutal revenge story with the search for female autonomy on its mind.
Fans of Joss Whedon’s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or the movie, directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui) know that there will never be anyone quite like Buffy. As played in the series with beautiful nuance by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy is one of the best television characters in history, regardless of gender. And yet her womanhood is essential to her greatness. After decades of helpless onscreen damsels, Buffy was a girl who could send the things that go bump in the night running and screaming with ease. Plus, she had tremendous interiority to boot. She went to school dances, worried about boys and homework, and had moments of low self-esteem, but she still managed to save the world many times, and give the patriarchy a few good kicks in the arse along the way.
Do you ever get hungry for human flesh? #justgirlythings. But really, a surprising amount of female-led and female-directed horror films involve cannibalism, particularly as it relates to the coming-of-age narrative surrounding young women. Julia Ducournau’s Raw, Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body, Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, and Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day are just a few hat include some form of human flesh craving, though only the first two equate it with puberty. The reasons for the subject’s recurrence surely differs from film to film, but it’s almost always metaphorical. Raw, Jennifer’s Body, and John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps form a triumvirate of teen girl cannibal films, positing through their subtext — which the female cult following has all but confirmed through academic readings of the film (and a general feeling among fans of weirdly relating to characters who eat people) — that we all hunger, whether it’s for connection, control, or, you know, human flesh.
“Did you take your medicine?”
This line is the first lesson in Horror Husband Gaslighting 101. The concept of gaslighting — psychologically manipulating someone into doubting their own experiences and reality — has been around since long before the play and film of the same name introduced the term. In horror films, the gaslighter is almost always the husband but sometimes extends beyond the domestic sphere to include other paternal authority figures; think every male character in Rosemary’s Baby. It’s an ugly, lazy trope but a common one, frequently used to (ostensibly, though it rarely works) make viewers question whether a character is actually being haunted or is simply losing her mind. The above question pops up in dozens of variations across hundreds of movies, as women suffering from depression, struggling with grief, or already stressed or traumatized seem to have become increasingly common as horror protagonists, sometimes for no other reason than their perceived unreliability. Here’s hoping for a future where this exhausted idea is retired, or where the gaslighting husbands are at least eaten by the spooky thing more often.
Campy, sexy, and sarcastic, the ’80s horror hostess played by Cassandra Peterson is nothing short of an American cultural icon. Jet black wig aside, Peterson herself cuts an impressive figure: she came to Hollywood from the midwest, went on a date with Elvis, led a rock band in Italy, and did comedy with The Groundlings before creating a pop cultural empire around the risque, gothic character Elvira. Her so-called Mistress of the Dark persona was essentially a flirty, funny vampire who introduced B-horror films like The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant, starred in Coors commercials, was given a comic book series, and inspired a thousand Halloween costumes. Surprisingly, she’s not fully retired, having hosted a Hulu limited series called 13 Nights of Elvira as recently as 2014.
“The final girl.”
Every genre has its unspoken rules, but through the ages, horror has probably had some of the most ridiculous ones. The final girl cliche is no exception, although it’s also been inverted successfully in recent years, demonstrating the genre’s knack for creativity and the experimental attitude that makes horror so appealing. If you’re unfamiliar, Wes Craven’s Scream franchise explains the problem best: “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie,” fourth wall-nudging horror geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy) explains in the series’ first movie. “For instance, number one: you can never have sex…sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. The sin factor! It’s a sin. It’s an extension of number one. And number three: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, ‘I’ll be right back.’ Because you won’t be back.” He’s not wrong–or at least, he wasn’t in 1996 when the film came out. Since Scream and most likely because it dared speak the rules aloud, this idea has been consistently toyed with and subverted, leaving behind the strict moralizing of earlier slashers in favor of dynamic characters and endings that unravel expectations.
Graveyard Shift Sisters
Representation in horror still has far to go, with people of color across genres largely underrepresented and, especially within horror, often subject to disproportionate mistreatment on screen. But real genre fans should never excuse themselves from watching movies that highlight and empower diverse voices just because they’re tougher to find. Graveyard Shift Sisters is an excellent resource for all horror lovers, a blog dedicated to Black women in horror — in front of and behind the screen, as well as in literature — and the fans who love them. The folks behind the site are also participating in Women in Horror Month, posting each day in February about a different Black female filmmaker. Year-round the website spotlights academic work on topics of race and the horror genre, like this piece on Black final girls, which includes 28 Days Later‘s Selena and Alien vs. Predator‘s Alexa.
Often cited as the first female-directed horror film, The Hitch-hiker was made by British-American actress and filmmaker Ida Lupino in 1953. Technically a film noir, it’s an intense cross-country tale about two men who pick up a hitchhiker who also happens to be a murderer then spend the rest of the film trying to escape him. The full film, which is now in the public domain, is available on YouTube. Eventually, Lupino and her husband formed the production company The Filmakers [sic], making her an industry trailblazer twice over.
“Iranian Vampire Western”
This is just one of the unexpected phrases used to describe Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. A hit on the festival circuit, the movie is a black-and-white slow burn set in picturesque Bad City, Iran, where a chador-wearing vampire stalks the streets, looking for prey and instead — to her surprise — finding a friend. Premiering at Sundance in 2014, the movie garnered positive attention on the festival circuit and solidified Amirpour as a filmmaker to watch. Her second feature, The Bad Batch, is a polarizing post-apocalyptic cannibal story set in the American southwest. Both films are ambitious and clearly find their distinct inspiration both within and beyond the horror genre.
Alfred Hitchcock isn’t exactly known for his great relationships with women, but the master of suspense actually owes a lot of his success to one in particular: Joan Harrison, his secretary who eventually became a co-writer for some of his better-known films. Her first credit was for Jamaica Inn, one of Hitch’s earlier movies, and she went on to help write Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, and Saboteur before striking out independently. By the ‘50s she was a television producer and teamed up with Hitchcock once more to produce Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
This talented Japanese-American director has done three horror projects to date, each one exciting and completely different from the last. In 2009 she brought Diablo Cody’s killer cool girl pic Jennifer’s Body — an offbeat, clever film starring Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox — to the big screen. The film floundered at the box office, but is still gaining a cult following. It also allowed then-pigeonholed Megan Fox to show another side of herself after Transformers. Kusama’s second genre endeavor was The Invitation, a striking psychological thriller about a group of old friends and new acquaintances gathered for a dinner party with seriously sinister undertones. The Invitation may not be for everyone, mingling horror with drama and ebbing and flowing in a way that makes viewers uncertain about what the stakes actually are, but it is nearly perfect at what it does do, cultivating suspense in a creative and memorable way. For Kusama’s third horror outing, see X for XX.
If you ask most people of a certain age what horror image has scared them most, the answer will be the same: Linda Blair on screen as Regan in The Exorcist, turning her head all the way around or projectile vomiting at men of God. These freaky images are indelible, as is Blair’s performance, which garnered the then-teen actress an Oscar nomination. In the role of Regan, Blair is perhaps most threatening because she’s the exact opposite of what a young woman was expected to be in 1973; the demon-possessed girl is violent, blasphemous, perverse, and masculine. Stories of excessive behind-the-scenes tactics used on The Exorcist are nearly as legendary as the finished product, including one about Blair and Ellen Burstyn being violently yanked about on harnesses for the sake of authenticity, resulting in a major chronic pain problem for Blair. With Uma Thurman’s recent revelations about the filming of Kill Bill, actor safety is a topic worth discussing, especially when actresses in genre films are so often put in situations that could be traumatic if not handled appropriately.
That mysterious maternal instinct — or more often, the disturbance which occurs when it goes wrong — has been the topic of countless scary movies and somehow still manages to, in the right hands, feel fresh. The oldest iteration of horror motherhood involves the demon child, as seen in The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby. This seems to be a topic most explored by male directors, although Alice Lowe’s horror-comedy Prevenge also takes it on with enthusiasm. The modern horror take on motherhood is more profound, with movies like The Babadook, The Others, and Under the Shadow demonstrating that a mother’s willingness to protect her children is a powerful force, one which parallels even the darkest stuff the universe has to offer. As with cannibalism, the preoccupation with motherhood likely has many roots, but one may be the simplicity and timelessness of its role in the circle of life. Just as there has always been death, there has always been new life, yet both somehow still manage to scare the crap out of us.
Perhaps the most well-known horror film directed by a woman, Near Dark is pure ‘80s punk cool. It’s a Western, vampire flick, and biker gang drama all melded into one evocative cult classic. Plus, decades later Kathryn Bigelow went on to become the first woman in history to win the best director prize at the Academy Awards, lending the dark, atmospheric story about a gang of vampires and the small-town teen they kidnap a strange but delightful bit of early-filmography prestige.
Representation of women working behind the scenes in film and television is ever-increasing, but still lacking in many measurable ways. Around 28% of all television writers are women, while 67% of TV shows have zero women writers, according to recent research by Women and Hollywood. NBC’s Hannibal is one of a few recent series to buck the trend: the show credits six diverse female writers across its three seasons, including two episode credits for Jennifer Schuur, one of which is an early first season episode, “Oeuf.” The episode was actually pulled from the lineup by showrunner Bryan Fuller before going to air, likely due to recent tragedies around the scheduled release time including the Boston Marathon bombing. Instead, the episode aired in several parts online. Though the psychedelic psychodrama Hannibal ended in 2015, Schuur has since written for and produced other network shows.
Of the top-grossing films of 2017, women accounted for 24% of producers, making producing the filmmaking category within which ladies are closest (though still only halfway) to achieving gender parity. Of course, film discourse dictates that directors get the most credit for what we see on screen, but several of your horror favorites might not have existed if it weren’t for the determined female producers making them happen. Gale Anne Hurd, for example, started out as an assistant to Roger Corman, produced pop cultural touchstones like Aliens and Tremors, and at one point produced three Walking Dead shows along with the creepy Amazon miniseries Lore. Jeanette Volturno-Brill, head of physical production at Blumhouse pictures, is equally impressive. Her credits include the Purge and Insidious series along with critical hits like Hush and box office-busters like Paranormal Activity.
Queen of the Damned
Women have been writing horror for centuries — after all, one of the most-adapted monster tales, “Frankenstein,” came from Mary Shelley’s boredom at being stuck indoors during the rainy season. Anne Rice is one of the most prolific women genre writers, and though this 2002 adaptation of her Vampire Chronicles was directed and written by men, it’s most remembered for featuring the late singer and actress Aaliyah. The movie was not well-received upon release, but should still be celebrated as a fun, sumptuous story that cast a Black woman in the lead role at a time when few big-budget genre films would do so. Plus, there’s a scene where Aaliyah’s character Akasha, in full vampire queen attire, waltzes through a hard rock bar and rips a man’s heart from his chest, so that’s cool.
“Requires a male gaze”
That’s what Bret Easton Ellis said about movies as a medium (not horror movies, just all movies), when he was asked in 2010 whether he thought Mary Harron was a good director. Harron directed an adaptation of his novel “American Psycho” that debuted at Sundance, grossed $34 million worldwide, and spawned a sequel and countless watercooler conversations. So if you’ve read this far and still wonder why initiatives like Women in Horror Month need to exist, look no further.
No, not the Ryan Murphy show. Scream queen is a title given to actresses who have appeared in multiple slasher movies, often as the same character, and usually as an attractive young lead who nearly dies again and again. Jamie Lee Curtis is the most notable scream queen, playing the lead in less prominent ‘80s movies Prom Night and Terror Train but gaining fame as Laurie Strode in the Halloween franchise. In a move that makes financial if not logical sense, Curtis is returning for another Halloween movie — the 11th in the series, counting remakes — despite her character’s apparent death in a previous installment. Like the final girl, scream queens have evolved over time, though if you scroll down far enough on Netflix, you can still find plenty of run-of-the-mill slashers that include helpless, blood-covered, objectified female leads.
In high school, every girl I knew wanted to know if I had seen Teeth. They said it like it was a dirty word, but I could tell that beneath their unease, they admired the movie in question. Mitchell Lichtenstein’s gross-out tale of vagina dentata is debatable in its feminist merits, yet its twisted solution for rape culture has a kind of magnetic pull. Jess Weixler plays an abstinent teen who, after an attempted rape discovers that — to paraphrase a recent protest term, she “grabs back.” Whatever the film’s message is, it’s muddied by the nightmarishly repeating scenes of attempted sexual violence. It’s impossible to tell if Lichtenstein goes over-the-top to prove a point about the threats women face or to fetishize a young girl’s victimization. Still, the age-old folk tale deserves the big screen treatment, and Teeth thankfully highlights it not through the tale’s original male lens (the concept of vagina dentata stemmed from a fear of castration) but through a much more legitimate and pervasive threat to women.
To date, this vamp-lycan film series has grossed $539 million worldwide, making it one of the most successful woman-led movie series. The films star Kate Beckinsale as a vampire who hunts down the werewolf-types whom she believes slaughtered her family. They’re not exactly good movies, but in a world where Transformers is just one of the dozens of lackluster male-led series that inexplicably keeps existing, a middling quality blockbuster franchise led by a woman is still some kind of triumph.
Horror has rarely found its home on television outside of the anthology format, which makes any genre series that manages to run for multiple seasons feel extra special. Bates Motel, an A&E Psycho prequel that ended up being more of a reimagining, is one such series: strange and inspired, it ran for five seasons of wildly varying quality. Farmiga’s Emmy-nominated performance as Norma Bates, however, never faltered. She thrillingly embodies a psychologically rich character who is insecure, childlike, controlling, maternal, impulsive, put-upon, and vulnerable, sometimes all in the same scene. Farmiga’s is an underrated performance that will hopefully only gain appreciation with age. Side note: Farmiga has actually done double duty on memorable horror roles, also starring in the critically acclaimed Conjuring series.
Unlike some others on this list, this horror metaphor is as simple as Salem; women, especially young women, have an untapped power that if harnessed, could threaten the patriarchy. Thus, witches. Classics like Dario Argento’s Suspiria and new favorites like The Witch make the case that knowledge about these powers — on film often externalized as another witchy presence separate from the protagonist — is ultimately destructive. However, women-helmed movies on the topic (think Anna Biller’s The Love Witch) tend to view witchcraft as more empowering than threatening. There’s also plenty to be said about whom movies view as witches and why; a negative cultural otherness surrounds the idea of a witch, making filmmakers’ penchants for placing women of color or sexualized women in these roles less than progressive. More empowered witch movies, please!
A women-made horror anthology composed of four short films from different directors, XX hopefully marks a shift toward more collaboration between women in horror. The first part of XX, Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box,” is the best of the bunch. It follows a mother whose children stop eating after seeing something inside a box on the subway. “The Box” is haunting and confounding, leaving a sense of quiet dread that I still feel while thinking about it months later. “The Birthday Party,” directed by Annie Clark (AKA St. Vincent) is a darkly comic story that’s better seen than explained. Roxanne Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” is a desert monster pic that would have been better as a feature, and “Her Only Living Son” (Karyn Kusama again) is a well-acted short whose presumed subject will be eerily familiar to fans of a certain classic.
You probably know them better as the black-haired, white-dress-wearing, inexplicably dripping-wet ghosts of J-horror. Yūrei are thought to be restless spirits of people (usually portrayed in art and on screen as women) who have been murdered or committed suicide. Though the concept of yūrei is taken very seriously in Japan, American pop culture has done and redone these lady ghosts to the point of parody. Still, some of the most frightening movies in existence, most of them made in the late ’90s and early 2000s, include yūrei or visually similar ghosts. Ringu and Ju-On, remade in English as The Ring and The Grudge, are two popular examples.
(Sheri Moon) Zombie
Rob Zombie’s brand of horror is not for everyone, but it’s certainly been prominent these last two decades, often with his wife Sheri Moon taking on a memorable role. With parts in House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, the Halloween remake, and Lords of Salem, Zombie is one of the only true modern scream queens we have. Working with a deep love of all things scary and what appears to be a satisfying and creative relationship with her husband, Sheri Moon Zombie has pulled off a difficult task, making a name for herself as a woman in modern exploitation horror.