Friday, October 14, 2016

Guest Post: Tracing Innovative Women Characters in Horror

The following is a guest post.

Even though women have started playing a wider variety of roles in horror movies, many still have stereotypical female characters. However, there are some truly excellent horror movies with unconventional female characters, and it appears that women’s roles in the genre are slowly changing. The following films have female leads who don’t fit any of the usual genre stereotypes. Fair warning: Due to the nature of this post, there are spoilers.

Scream (1996)

Scream is a slasher film about a high school student, Sidney (Neve Campbell), who is targeted by a killer called Ghostface. At first the story follows the typical course of a slasher flick, with various teenagers being killed in gory ways. However, Scream soon reveals itself to be a satirical take on traditional slasher movies. After many deaths, some hilarious moments and a few twists, Sidney discovers her friend Stu is the killer. She eventually kills him, only to discover Ghostface is not one killer but two - Sidney's boyfriend is the second killer, and she manages to kill him as well.

As a satirical take on slasher flicks, Scream mocks many of the features of typical slasher movies. One of the major tropes in slasher movies is the "final girl" - the female character who ultimately defeats the killer. She must be a virgin who avoids vices such as drinking and drugs. Usually, the girls who get killed in slasher films are not virgins or considered virtuous. Both Halloween and Friday the 13th are good examples of this motif, wherein the final girl is a "wholesome" virgin. Scream, however, breaks this trope. The characters in Scream even point out the rules of horror movies. The number one rule is “don’t have sex.”

At the beginning of the movie, Sydney is a virgin, but in the course of the film she has sex with her boyfriend, Billy. Yet she survives and goes on to kill Ghostface (both of them!). Despite learning some horrible truths about her mother, watching her friends being murdered and fighting for her life, Sidney survives and turns the final girl trope on its head. Scream ultimately allowed slasher films to break the rule of the virtuous final girl in a way that still resonates today. The 2013 movie Chastity Bites is an excellent example of this.

The Descent (2005)

The Descent is an adventure horror movie about six women who go spelunking in an attempt to help one member of the group, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), cope with the death of her family. After they enter the cave, the mouth of the cave collapses, trapping the women. As they try to find a way out, they realize creatures that have a taste for human flesh are hunting them. In their fight for survival, the women are killed off one by one. Eventually, only Sarah is left, and the movie ends with Sarah still trapped in the cave, listening as the hungry creatures approach.

In adventure horror movies where people are trapped with a monster, women are often portrayed as mere arm candy or as damsels in distress. It’s also uncommon to find a horror movie that solely stars women. While The Descent is an action horror movie, all the characters are women, and they do not take on stereotypical roles. Instead, they’re an adventurous group of friends looking for some excitement. Despite losing her family, Sarah isn’t a helpless wreck. Rather, she shows a huge amount of strength and only continues to grow stronger as the movie progresses. Indeed, The Descent offers a take on women in horror movies that remains somewhat uncommon today.

The Babadook (2014)

The Babadook is a psychological horror movie that tells the story of Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Sam. After Sam’s father dies, a troubled Amelia has to raise Sam on her own, though she finds it increasingly difficult to manage. One night, Sam asks Amelia to read him a book about a monster called the Babadook. Sam becomes obsessed with the Babadook and believes it’s hunting them. To her horror, Amelia soon realizes that the Babadook is real and is stalking them. After a harrowing ordeal, Amelia finally overcomes the Babadook and keeps it locked in the basement where she occasionally feeds it worms.

On its face, The Babadook appears to be a movie about a monster, and in a way it is. But the monster is actually a metaphor for Amelia’s grief. Initially, Amelia tries to deny her grief, but the Babadook won’t allow it. At one point, it even tells her that if she keeps trying to deny its existence, it will only get stronger. Eventually, Amelia comes to the realization that the only way to overcome the Babadook is to accept it. After she accepts that it is real, she gains control over it. She keeps it in the basement and occasionally feeds it, just as one occasionally revisits grief psychologically.

This insightful movie is really a story about one woman’s struggle to accept her own grief, thereby preventing it from destroying her son and herself. Her struggle takes her through the many stages of grief, from denial to acceptance. Essie Davis’ excellent acting portrays Amelia as a troubled woman who finds the strength within herself to deal with grief, as well as its physical manifestation as the Babadook. Incidentally (or not), The Babadook was written and directed by a woman, Jennifer Kent.

With their tough (both mentally and physically) and unique female characters, these three horror movies trace a positive trend in the genre: a move away from stereotypical roles for women toward more empowering ones. Hopefully, this trend will only continue, and we'll see more nontraditional female leads in future horror movies. Perhaps we’ll even see a few more convincing female villains!

These are by no means the only horror movies with innovative female characters. What is your favorite horror movie with strong or unusual female stars?

Cassie Philips writes blog posts about tech and entertainment at SecureThoughts. She’s particularly interested in how women’s roles in movies have changed over the last few decades and what that says about society’s views on women in general.

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