Maybe we can blame one of the first mainstream horror movies in America for the stereotyping of women in scary films. Of course, we are talking about George C. Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead” which was released on October 1st, 1968.
To the movie goers of the time, it was horrific gore. So much so, that like another favorite horror film of ours (“The Exorcist”) audience members in theaters had to be assisted because people were throwing up, visibly shaken or fainting as the zombies chowed down on the unlikely heroes trapped in the farmhouse.
Even in black and white film, the blood and gore were way too much for the average 1960s movie audience (which we think is kind of funny). If you watch the original film, it looks more like gravy than blood. We digress.
In “Night of the Living Dead” we are introduced to a feminine character called Barbara. From the beginning of the movie it is pretty clear that Barbara is the antithesis to anything heroic or brave. She is the epitome of the ‘perfect housewife’ and the persona of a helpless woman who needs to rely on a big strong man (or several of them) for survival. Yep, it is enough to get any feminist horror fan’s boy boxers in a knot. Girl power and all that? Come on Barbara!
As the movie progressed, we saw Barbara continue to mentally decline into psychological shock, and the fact that she actually almost survives the night is kind of laughable. We pegged her for Zombie chow within the first thirty minutes of the movie. Lucky for Barbara, she had those ‘big strong men’ around to rescue her. Inadvertently or deliberately, Barbara became the prototype persona for the weak and helpless female in a horror movie.
Transitioning from Female Victims of Violence to Kicking Some Serious Butt in Horror Movies
Flash forward to the 80’s and horror movies had tweaked that weak persona into a very predictable female victim. The checklist for the average female horror movie character was for a long time, a combination of these shockingly useless characteristics:
- Super hot (like really good looking)
- Long hair (typically blonde and brunettes lived longer)
- Directionally impaired
- Unable to load a gun or use weaponry
- Prone to unlocking a door and investigating
- Very prone to screaming when they need to be reeeallly quiet
Our favorite personality trait of the 1980’s female lead in horror movies was the unabashed grief over the loss of their [insert one] friend, sibling, parent or boyfriend. How many of them just sat there, trying to ‘wake up’ a dead person while the bad guy closed in? Game over.
I remember watching the original Friday the 13th movies with my dad, on a small television (and not in the living room because my mom hated scary movies). I was eight years old the first time I saw a scary movie and it was love at first cinematic trauma. But I remember asking my dad, “why are all the girls in horror movies stupid?” and he just laughed, and then gave me some rendition of how men are stronger as I rolled my eyes.
It was the horror movies of the 1990’s that started to portray women in more leading roles in even the most macabre films. I also remember at first, there was a big backlash. In the early 90’s horror stories that positioned women with stronger survival and tactical skills than men, were actually killed by film critics for a time. Until female horror genre fans started to get very vocal about liking and appreciating that shift. That sometimes, a woman could be the hero too, or sole survivor because of emotional and intellectual strengths, versus brawn or physical strength.
Even today though, when you watch a horror movie and a female protagonist or lead kicks some serious butt, you have to admit you are pretty surprised because it still breaks that classic “They are coming to get you Barbara” prototype. But the new generation of horror films not only make the lead a deserving survival, they frequently make her the hero, saving other characters (including big strong tough guys). And isn’t that awesome?
Hosting a horror watch party for your friends? Check out these five scary movies where the female characters took a big bite out of the bad guy and saved the day.
1. Laurie Strode – Halloween (Jamie Lee Curtis)
You know what they say, you can pick your friends, but you cannot pick your family. It is not really until Rob Zombie directed the remake of “Halloween” that we really get a glimpse into how messed up the Strode family was, and how the evil in Michael Myers was born.
If you have not watched the whole series of Halloween movies (there are 13 in total) we will not spoil it for you. Okay we are lying #SpoilerAlert! What we can say is that we were kind of disappointed with how Laurie dies, after successfully surviving so many attacks from her demonically deranged brother, Michael. The character literally lived a lifetime of evading a horrible violent death at the hands of Michael Myers and was the ultimate survivor (while perpetrating some serious injury to her assailant in some creative ways).
We’re still a little pissed off that she died. Just saying.
2. Ellen Ripley – Alien (Sigourney Weaver)
No kick a_ _ list of horror movie survivors would be complete without the legendary Ellen Ripley! This tough as nails female character fought off misogyny in the workplace, being the only female in a male penal colony on a stormy planet, and multiple attempts by a very scary species of aliens to use her as a larvae host.
Not only that, but she had to fight against ‘the man’ and a big corporation, psychotic synthetic human beings (do not call them robots, they don’t like it) but she had to continue fighting throughout several cloned incarnations of herself. Try waking up in a laboratory to restart the horror all over again. That shit sucks!
Ripley could make plans and execute them, manage other soldiers and she could use pretty much any weapon that you gave her, including a grenade launcher (or make her own). Our favorite characterization of Ripley is “Alien Resurrection” where she clearly steps into her Alpha warrior female role, with zero “F**ks” given attitude. Our favorite scene is Ripley driving the loader and beating the hell out of the Queen.
3. Nancy Thompson – A Nightmare on Elm Street (Heather Langenkamp)
What do you do when you are stalked by the paranormal presence of a child killer who can kill you in your dreams? Once you figure out that your parents actually burned him to death for killing your sibling (who you have no memory of) you make another pot of coffee, read up on boobytraps and defense, and kick some butt.
You can imagine how devasted we were to see her killed by Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. After all those years of outsmarting Freddy and surviving, she get’s catfished just like that? Once a daddy’s girl, always a daddy’s girl, I guess. She literally walked right into her five fingered death.
4. Alice – Resident Evil (Milla Jovovich)
When you think about it, there are many parallels between the Alien character Ripley and Alice from Resident Evil. Both are faced with ongoing trauma, death, and catastrophe, losing people they care about while trying to stop an apocalypse. And both of them are cloned so that they keep fighting the same battle over and over again in new iterations of their lives and existence. Kind of like the crappiest ‘Groundhog Day’ that never ends for both characters.
Do you find yourself holding your breath when you watch Alice fight deformed creatures, zombies, and soldiers? Sure, she is genetically engineered but Milla Jovovich is lean and mean; like an unstoppable female ninja, which is probably why we love the movie so much.
5. Dawn O’Keefe – Teeth (Jessica Weixler)
If you are a man and you are reading this, you might not want to watch the video clip. Dawn O’Keefe played by Jessica Weixler; has an obscure deformity you know… [down there]. The 2007 horror and comedy film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and had a limited release. Unless you are a hardcore horror fan you might not have seen this movie.
Jessica Weixler did receive the Grand Jury Prize for Acting in the movie. However, while critics loved the story line, the movie only grossed $2.4 million internationally. If you really want to know about the condition of vagina dentata (or what happens to guys who date women with the condition) you may want to look for this horror gem. It is a leg crosser.
Now we want to hear from you. Leave us a comment below and tell us which horror movie featuring a female kick a_ _ hero is your favorite of all time. And if you want to, link us with a video clip from YouTube.
Generation X gamer girl, marketing professional and closet horror writer. Lover of fast moving horror movies, slow moving zombies and historically based paranormal lore.