Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch (2015)TWITTER/HORRORCARNIVAL

With Halloween fast approaching, horror movie season is officially upon us. It is therefore time to grab some popcorn and reconsider one of the most frightening aspects of this murky genre: women’s complex presence in horror films.

Dubious interpretations of women regularly – albeit unintentionally – form the scariest part of any film. In horror, however, female characters are often crafted specifically to terrify. But why? For what reason does horror typically reinforce gendered stereotypes and links between women and monstrosity?

Toni Collette in Hereditary (2018)TWITTER/STOTALDARKNESS

While female characters are horror mainstays, they frequently appear as archetypes. These include unmaternal mothers or witches, temptresses, and virginal girls. Such archetypes recall motifs present in some of humanity’s oldest recorded folklore: consider Greek myths or European fairy tales. In this sense, when horror films employ archetypes in portraying women, they evoke centuries of weighty cultural connotations. Horror’s potency thus often comes from characters being less individual, and rather symbolic ciphers through which films explore age-old fears.

“Although horror films might superficially appear to be cheap thrill creations, [...] they are also a means of gauging and working through cultural fears.”

The plot thickens when one considers what links between age-old fears and women suggest about what Western society, in particular, finds disturbing. Although horror films might superficially appear to be cheap thrill creations, keeping purveyors of fake blood afloat, they are also a means of gauging and working through cultural fears. For example, in the Victorian era – largely pre-film, but full of horror stories – horror-adjacent novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and H. Rider Haggard’s She reflected contemporary preoccupations, including xenophobia and fear of degeneracy. Similarly, one can link the resurgence of zombie films in the 21st century with anxiety over terrorism following 9/11. The horror of zombies is that they communicate inscrutably, kill mindlessly, and swarm over boundaries. It is reasonable to suggest such films reflect increased anti-immigrant sentiment and demonisation of the other.

Florence Pugh in Midsommar (2019)TWITTER/VISIONONFILM

As for women, their horror film portrayals indicate ongoing preoccupation with women’s natures and freedoms, especially regarding sexual development. Horror frequently associates female puberty with the supernatural, evoking social unease surrounding women as sexual beings. Take The Exorcist (1973): protagonist Regan is possessed, granted, but she is also 12 and bordering on puberty. Consequently, for all the film purportedly focuses on a priest’s struggle to exorcise a demon, it explores fear of female sexuality as much as it does faith and apostasy. It is no coincidence Regan’s possession is accompanied by menstrual blood, swearing, masturbation using a crucifix, and facial disfiguration interpretable as an exaggeration of acne. The girl is not merely possessed: she is, in a hyperbolic subtextual way, becoming a teen.


Mountain View

Orlando’s insanity kept me sane

The supposed horror of many women in this genre is linked to their rebellion: the good girl is possessed, for example, or the innocent beauty becomes brazenly sexual, rejecting feminine pressures to be docile and virginal. The eponymous Carrie develops supernatural powers following her first period and, in an allegorical warning about the dangers and monstrosity of unrepressed female sexuality, commits mass murder at the prom. Through such tales, horror explores the different experiences and contradictions of being a woman living within patriarchal contexts. Simultaneously sexualised upon growing up and shamed by narratives claiming female puberty is inherently monstrous and unclean, the horror genre certainly has social baggage to draw upon in teasing out audiences’ unease around female sexuality and agency.

“Horror films can explore pressures faced by women, prompting audiences to consider why women might be possessed – literally or figuratively – to rebel in the first place.”

One could therefore conclude that horror films are regressive, reinforcing anxieties over women and their changing bodies and psyches, ever unknowable to male directors and audiences (indeed, pregnancy and possession à la Rosemary’s Baby is a whole other bucket of pig’s blood). However, there exists an alternative interpretation of women’s roles in horror: namely, that the genre actually interrogates depictions of women as monstrous by illustrating conflicts between conservative expectations and women’s ‘obscene’ rebellion. Teeth (2007), for example, has an absurd premise involving a toothed vagina and male castration – but it also explores the fact the teeth only bite when the protagonist suffers abuse. Meanwhile, in The Witch (2015), protagonist Thomasin is drawn to witchcraft largely owing to her yearning for independence, sexual freedom, and acceptance, all of which are denied within her repressive and patriarchal Puritan family. In such ways, horror films can explore pressures faced by women, prompting audiences to consider why women might be possessed – literally or figuratively – to rebel in the first place.

Jess Weixler in Teeth (2007)TWITTER/DUSTFiSH770

Ultimately, horror films showing women rejecting societal norms and constraints can be read allegorically, as critiques of the very worlds these women are forced to inhabit. Therefore, while not all horror films are necessarily intelligent or even questioning in their portrayals of women, the genre nevertheless has something to offer critical audiences. Either the films consciously explore women’s oppression, or they unwittingly illustrate gendered stereotypes indicative of society’s most deep-seated fears. Either way, audiences will come away from these films having learnt something – even though it may well be bloody terrifying.