Women are the unsung heroes of horror.
This is the conclusion most expect at the end of a long explanation why, but at this point, it should be a recognised fact with exhibits to follow. Because what is horror without its women? We are all familiar with the 'Final Girl', no matter how many romps we may or may not have had with the genre itself. That extending, we know that the 'Final Girl' is one of the biggest selling points that people will want to latch on to. Nancy Drew's done it for decades now, and among the film community, there's a hall of fame for the most esteemed and recognisable female protagonists.
But there's been a steady evolution in the role of women in horror, an evolution that is reflected across all of its mediums and formats. It can be seen with Sidney Prescott surviving the gaslighting, abuse, and trauma throughout the Scream franchise. We've witnessed it in fashion, iconography and faces stretched across fabric, fabric and appliques twisting the human body into delightful, frightful visages. It's even in our digital communication, now a part of the TikTok trend cycle in its own way. This evolution can be called so many things, but often a way to (maybe clumsily) summarise all of these avenues is under the term: feminist horror.
The fact that horror film so stubbornly genders the killer male and the principal victim female would seem to suggest that representation itself is at issue-that the sensation of bodily fright derives not exclusively from repressed content, as Freud insisted, but also from the bodily manifestations of that content."
Feminist horror does not mean having a strong female protagonist that is both savvy, tough, and sexually liberated. It does not mean, either, banking on selling tickets with a trailer highlighting the "badassness" of a female lead. It is a specific shift that engages not only with the legacy of women's roles in horror, but the legacy that women have dealt with across millennia, across societies, throughout culture. Feminist horror navigates territories where things become fraught and multisensory, creating an experience that directly speaks to what women have had to go through themselves.
To clarify, these are not new stories nor is this a recent phenomenon. Femme perspectives in horror and as horror-beings are as interwoven within the genre itself. Its most recognisable faces are popularly parodied and ever-adored, and of course there's been more open documentation and louder voices discussing the deeply queer qualities of many beloved horror genre pieces, including how it frames lesbianism. Even without femme writers and producers, there have been feminist material in horror that laid the groundwork for new generations.
Now, the generations impacted are taking the light and creating waves in feminist horror. Its currents are louder than ever and noticed not only in what's made, but who's talking. Seen in the praise and outpouring of love for the maligned Jennifer's Body (2009), explored while chronicling the legacies of women in the Halloween franchise, the genre of feminist and femme horror creations have reached levels that make it hard to ignore. Characteristics of feminist-driven horror varies broadly; the fears and frights of daily life are handled with so many different mechanisms- caution, paranoia, frivolity, and even more. A movie like, say, 2017's Happy Death Day stands in stark contrast to 2022's Men.
Important distinctions are present, and their relationship to counteracting existing genre ideas makes for a unique experience.
As mentioned, our 'Final Girl' is a commonly seen trope correlated with a much more invested audience, a fact that has not gone unnoticed, if Cabin in the Woods (2012) stands as an example, by the genre. This does not change in feminist horror exactly, as triumphant female characters are also largely seen in these roles or depicted as victorious. Women are not exempt from being the terror themselves, either, appearing in vastly different roles and making their own subgenres within the horror scene. These perspectives of women have been coloured in with distinctive patriarchal marks, however, that have marred this long-documented history.
One of the more interesting things about feminist horror is its specific departure from these tropes, while still playing into them. The difference can really be narrowed down to who is doing the storytelling: men or others? Jennifer's Body sits in a similar strait with cult-classics like Ginger Snaps (2000) and The Craft (1996) in this form. We see that the way women relate to their fear of these villainesses differ greatly from the men surrounding the plot. Even if it stands in the same straits as noticing someone's "blooming" sexuality, the sensuality of a pubescent teenage girl is viewed as erotic and threatening in these pieces, standing apart from how a woman may view it with muted respect, curiosity, admiration, etc. Of course, sapphic readings come into feminist horror quite often. After all, the body's response to fear and sex are both under the coined umbrella of "arousal."
But the genre is flipped as the main characters in these titles operate in such different circumstances to the evil seductress trope.
This is where the femme experience really operates. Women are not plainly evil because of surface-level circumstance, or survivors because of their purity and alignment with men. Their relationships with evil are multifaceted and coloured by the distinct lessons they've learned living as femmes and creating solidarity with their ilk.
Sisterhood is not to be feared like in 1973's The Wickerman and 1971's The Blood on Satan's Claws. The strength and power of female relationships and the interpersonal communication within these structures differs radically from how these characters associate with men, but it isn't painted as conniving, frightening. There is a bond and love and understanding, and that's where horror is introduced. The horror of seeing women be preyed upon by others, of seeing misogyny infect the choices and behaviours of fellow femmes, is rife in feminist horror. The response to these feelings, too, are incredibly stark. Emotional outbursts are fretful or maniacal in standard patriarchal takes on women in horror (if they're not the Scream Queen protagonist). The hysterical female prompts viewers to take a step back, fearing the "wild look" in the eyes of such an unhinged woman. Annie Wilkes's unnerving stare was so poignant, all coverage and recreation of Misery nearly hinges on the depiction of the wildness contained in her gaze alone.
Again, we see the other side; screaming, crying, hitting, wailing in these progressively broadening feminist avenues are liberating and expressive, another means of characterising the person we've arrived to know before us.
Women are not virtuous creatures crying out from exasperation, arching their necks beautifully to deliver their best yell in these feminist interpretations. In a sense, they embody an elevated storytelling ability, where a character represents their town, their history, their past, their present within each action and interaction. Their conversations and allegiances extend beyond world-building. To have a femme voice input into these narratives opens up so much exploration of bodily autonomy, safety, worth, freedom of expression- to have these things explicitly investigated is an act of feminism.
Stereotypes are easy trappings for many creators and we, as an audience, come to feel protected and safe when welcomed into familiar territories that tropes ease us into. In so many years of artmaking, inventing totally new structures all in one go do not pan out well too often. A mechanism that does not reinvent but retells the tales that have blanketed feminist ideas from view now has room to thrive-- and it's a noticeable flourishing. The mad monster in 1933's The Invisible Man is not remade but revised to really explore what makes something monstrous in its 2020 counterpart.
That is how feminist horror functions.
Feminist horror creates a bubble where the invisible is made visible in new, ultra-human ways. Metaphor, SFX, editing, makeup all become tools creatives use in this place. Whether through the construct of words, or a storyboarded movie brought to screens, feminist horror has continually pushed its way into the limelight across the branching networks of art.
Its scream will not be silenced, and its power reverberates in the ears and eyes of our current world.