This is how women are portrayed in horror: dashing through the dark streets in their underwear; half-naked at sorority sleepovers being terrorized; running up the stairs instead of going for the front door; either naked or in their underwear at the worst possible moment; or fully-clothed and making dismal escape attempts. You would think after centuries of persevering through violent patriarchal oppression, horror directors would catch on to the fact that, in the real world, women are the ultimate survivors. But in the horror world, smart and resourceful women are, unfortunately, few and far between.
For years, women in horror have been the terrorized damsels. We are, more than often, the main characters of horror films, hence the creation the scream queen—actresses who became iconic for their presence in horror films, and, of course, their shrill shrieks. Yet despite the popularity of women in horror, for decades, women were there not to fight back against the antagonist, but to simply, it seemed, flail in blouses that were falling apart.
In more recent times, ’80s horror and onward, women in horror have survived and even defeated the monster or killer that is after them—but only after showing some skin and, of course, also providing excellent scream queen fodder. While the scream queen tradition is positive in a lot of ways, showing that we can be both strong and rightfully fearful at the same time, many scream queens make terrible decisions. Every horror movie watcher has, likely more than once, screamed at the TV: “Lock the goddamn doors! Why are you going up the stairs? Just shoot him in the head already.”
On one hand, this hesitance to just shoot the killer a second time, just in case, (because they’re always magically alive), or going the absolute wrong way, is a key part of building horror suspense. If characters made all the right decisions, there would be little room for fear and tension. Still, seeing women fight in their underwear at their friend’s sleepover is ridiculous. As a woman, I’d just like to say: I don’t sleep in a little lace nightie and I don’t hang out with my friends topless. And if a man I didn’t know called my phone and started breathing on the other line, I probably wouldn’t talk to him let alone be charming and flirty. Us women go through a lot; our survival instincts are top notch and horror needs to recognize that.
One good thing about women in horror? They always sense an evil presence in the house, and it’s usually the boyfriend/husband/father that insists that this house is a wonderful new place to start fresh. So a note to all the guys out there with a woman in their life: if she says there’s an evil presence in the house, there is most definitely an evil presence in the house. One could argue that the idea of the woman in the movie always being able to sense ghosts lends itself to the stereotypes of “female intuition” and women’s “emotional sensitivity”—there is merit to that. Though, I have to admit I get a certain satisfaction about seeing women in horror usually being right when it comes to ghosts and ghouls.
It can go the other way, too: the creation of a “strong” woman character who is utterly fearless, brazen, angry, and abrasive. But all this does is create one-dimensional character whose supposed strength is really her only character trait. If a depraved weirdo is chasing you with a chainsaw, it’s human nature to be afraid and screaming at the top of your lungs. However, we need to see women in horror who get afraid, panicked, and flustered at times, yet still have the capacity to be brave, tactical, and display some obvious common sense. The strong angry woman vs. weak emotional scream queen just puts women into polar opposite categories, making unrealistic sexist tropes, rather than well thought-out and insightful characters.
And if mainstream horror directors seriously find that too hard, the least they could do is quit the lace nightie stuff. Believe it or not, women like to be comfortable when they sleep. Surprising, right?
Next week, in honour of the spookiest time of year, I give you my top horror movies that are sure to scare you silly, while also being progressive and diverse films.