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5 Horror Movies Where Females Took a Big Bite Out of the Bad Guy

Ripley from alien movie holding a cat

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gf9W9BlakY

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.

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Featured Women in Horror

The Iconic Final Girl

The Final Girl of Halloween (1978) Laurie Stroder
The Final Girl of Halloween (1978) Laurie Stroder

It has been said that “women in peril work better in the suspense genre … If you have a haunted house and you have a woman walking around with a candelabrum, you fear more for her than you would for a husky man.” (Clover; pg. 77) With this statement, we can almost summarize the entirety of the horror genre’s tilt towards what some might call misogyny perpetuated by the film industry’s propensity for being male-dominated. We can also build towards a much more interesting concept—that of the Final Girl.

Throughout the lifespan of horror, we see that a woman in peril is hardly a new trope within the genre—in fact, the evidence of its existence can be seen clearly in literature such as that of Edgar Allan Poe, where he regularly relied upon the formula to create suspense within his works. His perspective, however, that “the death of a beautiful woman is the ‘most poetical topic in the world,’ does little to help us in understanding where this pattern comes from. We know the Final Girl is rarely, if ever, regarded for her evolution from victim to heroine, but what is less clear is why that is such a rarity.

The Villain: Epitomizing the Slasher

The killer is with few exceptions recognizably human and distinctly male; his fury is unmistakably sexual in both roots and expression; his victims are mostly women, often sexually free and always young and beautiful ones. Just how essential this victim is to horror is suggested by her historical durability.

Carol J. Clover, pg. 77 – Her body, himself: Gender in the slasher film

The argument goes that men are victims but Clover argues that, “… if some victims are men … most are women, and the women are brutalized in ways that come too close to real life for comfort…” (pg. 77). It’s true too, that the genders are each represented in their reflections on the screen and this encourages the impulse to identify the impulse of committing sexual violence with men as well as the victimization in their female counterparts. While that association isn’t necessarily flattering to the emboldened female of the modern age, it’s been a trope for such a long time that it’s hard to deny its root in historical facts. Cross-gender identification can and has been entertained as a possibility, but only in the sense that the females watching can identify more closely with the male roles.

The Male Role in Horror: The Killer or the Failed Hero

These days, more often than not, the male viewer can only identify with two portrayals of himself—the killer or the failed hero—male parts are more marginalized, with few exceptions, their characters tend to be more underdeveloped and without fail they have a tendency to die early within the film. We see males portrayed as “policemen, fathers, and sheriffs,” who, if they don’t end up as a victim, only have enough screen time, “to demonstrate risible incompetence,” and if they’re not portrayed in this manner, they’re being portrayed as the killer.

The killer, the villain, the slasher, the butcher—he’s the one that competes with the first victim for the least amount of screen time. We barely see him during the first half of the film, but when we do finally see him as more than a silhouette or a brief flash across the camera we see a character that is hard to identify with.

Who is the Final Girl?

Gender and the Final Girl

Horror movies, especially slashers, have a tendency to boast large body counts—after all, excess is the name of the game—and as we’ve learned those bodies are usually females and pretty ones to boot. One thing that we also have a tendency to see within these same movies, is that the one character who does live to tell the tale, that is to say, if anyone is alive by the end, is fated to be female. This is the famous Final Girl that, we can reliably pick out of the crowd of horny teenagers based on her advanced character development.

Once picked out of the crowd, we see that her storyline is really the only one that has any attention paid to it—outside of the killer’s that is—unlike the rest of the female characters, she has been bestowed a more reasonable set of characteristics. If she’s not operating on pure luck, she likely impresses us with her intelligent watchful eye and her ability to stay more level-headed when she’s put under pressure. She’s typically the first one to notice anything is wrong, but this is generally chalked up to a “gut feeling” which shows us that her instincts are significantly greater than the characters that are more disposable. She is the only character whose view, or perspective, of the situation most closely matches our own as the audience.

We register her horror as she stumbles on the corpses of her friends; her paralysis in the face of death duplicates those moments of the universal nightmare experience on which horror frankly trades. When she downs the killer, we are triumphant. She is by any measure the slasher film’s hero. This is not to say that our attachment to her is exclusive and unremitting, only that it adds up, and that in the closing sequence it is very close to absolute.

Carol J. Clover, pg. 79 – Her body, himself: Gender in the slasher film

Women in Peril

While women in peril can be found in almost any genre—the damsel in distress is a popular motivation for any male antagonist. However, as Clover points out in her essay on gender within the slasher film, women in peril tend to work better within a genre of suspense. This stems from origins in such serial productions as The Perils of Pauline (1914); the consensus is that if we were to see a male and female wandering around a haunted house (or other precarious situation), we would invariably be more worried for the female than for the male. This perspective is all too accurate, despite the rise in female heroines in action movies and thrillers and has more to do with how much we can identify with gender and less to do with misogynistic perspectives.

Perhaps it’s the range of emotional expression that the genders are each allotted within these storylines, where the men are given the macho aggression or displays of force, women are given the displays of “crying, cowering, screaming, fainting, trembling, [and] begging for mercy.” In essence, the feminine reaction to violence, killing, or simply-put terrifying situations, is “abject terror”.

The Evolution of Perspective

We see within the beginning of these types of films that we have a more intimate view of the killer’s perspective; a perfect example of this would be the opening scene of Halloween (1978) where we are literally seeing through the eyes of a six-year-old Michael Myers as he watches his sister, who instead of babysitting him as she was supposed to, is getting it on with her boyfriend. We see him intentionally sneak through the house while his sister and her boyfriend are aggressively cuddling upstairs, and watch as he grabs the biggest sharpest knife available to him. While we don’t want to identify with this perspective, even though we are forced to see through this lens, we do experience the waxing anxiety that comes with him padding up the staircase and stabbing his breast-baring sister to death. To be quite frank though, it’s not necessarily the perspective that is really disturbing, it’s the moments where we hear the killer’s breathing or heartbeat.

This forced perspective links us, albeit unwillingly, with the killer during the earliest parts of the film, we know him before we know any other character of importance to the storyline. We know his perspective before we even know what he looks like, or in most cases, who he is and what his story might be. We know him before we know our Final Girl—this is done intentionally. Although in Final Girl (2015) we see the pattern flipped, so we see and know who the Final Girl is before we know who the bad guys are (and oddly almost want to identify with them right before they are taken out by our heroine). Aside from the minor outliers to this pattern, the progression of the film leads our shift of perspectives from the killer to the Final Girl. As Clover cleverly stated, “our closeness to him wanes as our closeness to the Final Girl waxes—a shift underwritten by storyline as well as camera position.”

By the end, point of view is hers: we are in the closet with her, watching with her eyes the knife blade stab through the door; in the room with her as the killer breaks through the window and grabs at her; in the car with her as the killer stabs through the convertible top, and so on. With her, we become if not the killer of the killer then the agent of his expulsion from the narrative vision. If, during the film’s course, we shifted our sympathies back and forth, and dealt them out to other characters along the way, we belong in the end to the Final Girl; there is no alternative.

Carol J. Clover, pg. 79 – Her body, himself: Gender in the slasher film

Final Thoughts on the Final Girl

Ultimately when it comes to the Final Girl, I don’t see mysogynistic screenplays, instead I see simple tropes in horror that were stumbled upon by writers who ultimately understood the value of a character that everyone could root for. It’s a human condition to thrive off of excess, this is true for, “sex, violence, and emotion [as they] are fundamental elements of the sensation effects of [pornography, horror, and melodrama],”—we grasp for the gratuitously violent, the gratuitously sexual, and the gratuitously depressing because of the effect they have on our bodies (Williams; pg. 3).

If we were to try to label the reason for the existence of these “heavy doses of sex, violence, and emotion,” we would have to face the fact that they are there for no other reason except to excite us into reacting. Therefore, when we see this Final Girl and her implicit androgyny, her assumed virginal state, her intelligence, and her eagle-eye for understanding the situation that is unfolding before her and we say, “Yep! That would be me if I were in that situation!” We think to ourselves that we would never be the first one to die, we would run out of the house instead of cornering ourselves upstairs, we would never look back while we were running and would therefore never trip over our own feet—and we would never ever utter the phrase, “I’ll be right back.”

Work Cited

Crow, David, et al. “The 13 Best Final Girls in Horror Movie History.” Den of Geek, 30 Sept. 2020.

Kendrick, James. “Slasher Films and Gore in the 1980s.” A Companion to the Horror Film, by Harry M. Benshoff, Wiley Blackwell, Chichester, West Sussex, 2017.

Lentini, Lori. “5 Horror Movies Where Females Took a Big Bite Out of the Bad Guy.” Puzzle Box Horror, 27 Apr. 2020.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 4, 1991, pp. 2–13.