The Evolution of Women in Horror Movies

Do You Like Scary Movies?

“I don’t watch [horror movies] … They’re all the same. It’s always some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl – who can’t act – who always runs up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.”

–  Sidney Prescott, Scream (1996)

In early horror movies, there was the damsel in distress. All she could do was struggle against the villain and cry for help. Eventually, the damsels would evolve into bimbos who ran up the stairs, into a corner, or straight into the killer’s machete.

In 1925, Universal Pictures released the first of their monster movies, Phantom of the Opera. It is easily the most famous horror film of early cinema. Lon Chaney plays the Phantom, and Mary Philbin is the focus of his obsession and the archetypal damsel in distress. Many more female horror characters would continue the traditional “weak and scared” woman into the 21st century.

Women in Horror, vintage horror illustration
another damsel in peril!

Generally, women’s roles in movies mirrored their roles in American society. In the early 1900s, women were homemakers and mothers. In the 1920s, women were more liberated and felt free to express themselves and dress more provocatively (i.e. flappers and jazz babies). Women in the movies followed suit. In the 1930s, scantily clad ladies like Faye Wray in King Kong (1933) and Kathleen Burke as The Panther Woman in Island of Lost Souls (1932) screamed or tantalized audiences, often at the same time.

Female characters shrieked their way through the 1950s but did little more than that. It was a monster-driven time. Fear of a creature from the Black Lagoon or a giant tarantula was likely a welcome break from the fear of nuclear war and communism.

Shower power

In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock took fear to a new level. Psycho, one of the most influential films in horror, had “shocking bursts of violence and provocative sexual explicitness.” It features “possibly the most famous scene in cinema history” – the shower scene. It seems demeaning to refer to Janet Leigh’s Marion as a scream queen, but that’s what she is. The difference is that Leigh is in an artfully crafted film rather than the campy movies that came before and those that came after. Coincidentally, Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, went on to become a famous scream queen herself in Halloween (1978).

Night of the Living Dead (1968) featured the hysterical female character, Barbra (Judith O’Dea). For most of the film, she’s out of her mind or catatonic. She does help fight against the undead at one point, but it turns out to be a one-time burst of survival instincts.

In horror, there tends to be one character who makes the audience audibly groan – the one who does exactly what she’s not supposed to do. Near the end of the movie, Barbra sees her undead brother, runs to him, then gets torn to pieces by a mob of zombies. Interestingly, in the 1990 remake, the Barbra character is much less hysterical, and her character survives.

The 70s was when slasher movies came into being. These included films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978). Halloweenset a standard for every slasher that would follow it.”

“As much as I love the slashers of the ’70s and ’80s, they did present women as disposable victims,” says Cara Clark, owner and manager of PopcornHorror.com. “They were usually more sexualized than their male counterparts.”

British filmmaker Emma Dark agrees with Clark’s assessment. “We’ve certainly seen eras where women are treated in objectified ways or shown as dumbed down.”

The “Final Girls”

Seventies horror movies also gave life to the “Final Girl,” the sole survivor of the killer’s rampage. According to Carol Clover (author of the book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender and the Modern Horror Film) says, the Final Girl “alone looks death in the face, but she alone finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B).”

In her article Proof These (Infuriating) Horror Movie Tropes Are Changing, Elena Nicolaou writes that the issue of women in horror is “a gnarly, complicated one.” Compared to other genres, “women have more onscreen time than men” in horror movies. But she also notes that “the genre is saddled with blatant sexism.”

There’s the “Final Girl” – the sole surviving female at the end of the movie. Often portrayed as a virgin or at least not sexually active, she’s in contrast with those who are. Nicolaou refers to this as the “’Sex By Death’ trope. And that’s the rub – while one girl prevails, the other girls die because they *gasp* had sex.

In 1996, the Final Girl finally came into her own. Sidney Prescott in Scream not only survived the killing spree and took out the killers, she did it all as a non-virgin. We’ve come a long way, baby!

Speaking of coming a long way, Lin Shaye has been killing it in the Insidious series (2010 – 2018) as spirit medium Elise Rainer. As a mature actress, Shaye’s career spans 40 years and includes close to 200 roles. So much for all horror actresses having to be 20-year-olds in short-shorts.

Women who slay

Are women always just the victims in horror movies? Not at all. There are plenty of females with murder on their minds.

“I often wonder how a female horror character hasn’t reached the heights of Freddy or Jason,” says Clark. “I loved American Mary (2013). Here was a female in the lead role as a bad guy but with more development.” (Unfortunately, the Canadian-made American Mary did not get a wide release and soon went to video.)

Though there are a number of lists like “Violent Femmes: Eight Horror Movies With Badass Female Killers” (WickedHorror.com), few people equate these women at the iconic level of Michael Myers or Leatherface. And even though it was Jason’s mom, Pamela Voorhees, who was the killer in the first Friday the 13th, Jason is the one who often gets the credit.

Annie Wilkes from Misery is one of the scariest baddies out there: a fangirl gone very wrong. Kathy Bates’s performance as Annie earned her an Academy Award. But you don’t find Halloween costumes of her in the stores.

Then there’s Carrie (1976). Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is neither protagonist or antagonist. She’s not necessarily likable, but you do sympathize with her. To a point.

“I love Carrie. The duality of her character is fantastic,” says Clark. Carrie is the girl no one wants to be, which is a big part of why people fear her. There’s also the fact she can slam doors and throw things with her mind. She goes from weak and meek to a force to be reckoned with. And you will actually find costumes based on her.

The vengeful-spirit girls from Ringu (1998)/The Ring (2002) and Ju-On (2002)/The Grudge (2004) also deserve a mention (Samara and Kayako, respectively). Japanese horror movies are more psychological in nature and don’t rely on “excessive nudity and high body counts” like the American slashers. Plus, these ghosts are terrifying.

Behind the camera

Filmmaker Emma Dark working behind the scenes on one of her projects.

As women’s roles in horror movies have been shifting in front of the camera, they’ve also taken more responsibility behind the camera. But it’s not always an easy road.

Says Popcorn Horror’s Clark, “I think the independent community is evolving. Even compared with a few years ago, I see a lot more projects with female directors, writers, producers. Mainstream horror has some catching up to do, though.”

As an independent filmmaker, Emma Dark has first-hand experience trying to break through the “celluloid ceiling” and into more mainstream areas. Dark writes, produces, directs, edits, color-grades, and acts in most of her projects.


Emma Dark and Chris Hampshire
Chris Hampshire and Emma Dark discuss the script for Seize the Night.

“You have to have a lot of stamina and passion to make an indie film,” she says.

Dark’s work is getting recognition, though. Her two short films Seize the Night and Salient Minus Ten have been well-received. Plus, David Gelmini of DreadCentral.com called Salient “one of the best horror shorts of [2017].”

Marisa Mirabal of HorrorNews.net thinks women leading horror movies are already on the rise.

“A new pattern is emerging, which in many ways is due to the increasing number of female directors within the genre,” writes Mirabal in her article “Women In Horror: From Scream Queens to Behind the Scenes.”

“By adding terror with a feminine backbone, characters have become deeper; the audience more emotionally engaged. Women are no longer restricted to being the victim both on camera and off.”

The time has come for women (plus people of color and those of diverse backgrounds) to reboot the horror genre. The time for evolution is over. It’s time for a horror revolution.

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About the author

Minda Powers-Douglas

Minda was raised in movie theaters and can identify just about any 80s movie. She lives among her husband's comic books. Favorite movies: Sunset Boulevard, Rearview Window, The Goonies, IT, and Disney's animated Alice in Wonderland. Other favorite things: Stephen King books, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bates Motel, Keanu Reeves, horror movies, Harry Potter, used bookstores, really good cookies, and her daughter. She is a freelance writer and editor. She also really likes cemeteries. Website: www.TheCemeteryClub.com Twitter: @cemeteryminda and @scatteredadvice

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