Posted on February 17, 2016

Celebrating A Broader Picture of Women in Horror

Gwen

It has been said that horror involves too few and too negative stereotypes of women. In the years since Carol Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, even the final girl has been criticized for limiting women’s role in horror. I feel that that there has been continuous growth in the industry’s representations of women. The female character is no longer an adornment to be draped over the shoulder of The Creature from The Black Lagoon (1954) or of an oversized gorilla. She does not exist simply to be saved. The following qualities of the present women of horror provide us with a better representation of the myriad of personalities that exist in real women. Rather than the simple formulaic final girls, these qualities reinforce ways of seeing women in horror and of appreciating horror’s growing audience of female spectators. Women are not one-dimensional: we are sometimes weak, strong, smart, silly, scared, simple, and maddeningly complex. Far from complete, this broader range of characteristics celebrates the fact that women in our favorite genre are more than just props, archetypes, or stereotypes. Looking beyond the big boobs, monstrous mommies, and less than virginal victims, women contain a multitude of characteristics that critics often minimize. There was no way I was limiting this list to ten and it’s our month so we are in charge. I hope you will all add some to our list to help us celebrate women in horror.

ENDURANCE (Olivia Hussey as Jessica Bradford in Black Christmas [1974]) Not only does she endure the attacks of the killer, Jess also endures her boyfriend trying to talk her out of having an abortion. Jess is a unique character in that she is beautiful, smart, sassy, sexual, and she doesn’t have to compromise her gender in order to kill her attacker. Interestingly enough, Jess is not punished for the typical horror trope transgressions. In fact she survives over the other more “typical” girls in her sorority.

FACES DANGER HEAD ON / BRAVE (Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street [1984]) This one goes without question. Throughout all of her appearances in the NOES films Nancy pursues Freddy Krueger into his own realm. She does not wait for danger, she identifies her problems, she figures them out, and faces them head on. Nancy is an active participant and, if anything, she should have put mothers’ minds at ease…yes there are many dangers in the world, and yes I can handle them. For more on Nancy, see Heather’s documentary “I AM NANCY

WICKED ONE-LINERS (Angie Everhart as Lilith in Tales From The Crypt’s Bordello of Blood [1996]) “Don’t eat your heart out, baby – that’s MY job.”

DYNAMIC AND COMPLEX (Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin in Serial Mom [1994]) You can see I am definitely skewed by some of my favorite films. Nonetheless, Beverly Sutphin challenges our idea about the traditional suburban mother. She reminds us that women are not always what they seem or what society tells them to be. She is hysterical, provoking, maternal (to a flaw), and friendly to the environment. Did you say….PUSSY WILLOWS?!

STRONG FRIENDSHIPS (Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott and Courteney Cox as Gale Weathers in Scream [1996]) OK, maybe they were more like frenemies in the beginning, but so what. Throughout the Scream films Gale replaces the traditional male authority who used to save the day. Think Halloween (1978) and Dr. Loomis. Gale doesn’t necessarily have to take over, but she certainly helps turn the tables. Nonetheless, Sidney is a better…more alive person because of her relationship with Gale.

SMART / DRIVEN (Saffron Burrows as Dr. Susan McAlester in Deep Blue Sea [1999) Who is solving Alzheimer’s disease? The smart scientist Dr. McAlester. She does not compromise her looks or her gender in order to be smart. She is unapologetically intelligent and she also saves the day.

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DOESN’T MIND GETTING DIRTY (Virginia Madsen as Helen Lyle in Candyman [1991]) In the pursuit of knowledge (yet another smart, beautiful, and gendered woman) Helen climbs into holes in the walls, crawls through mirrors, and gets covered in dog blood in order to finish her graduate degree. Yup, sounds about accurate ‘cause grad school make you do some crazy sh*t. I am at the point that I might do grosser things than that in order to finish my PhD. . . Just sayin’.

CHOOSE YOUR OWN PATH (Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in Psycho [1960]) Marion carves her own path and she does it all in an American-made Ford. When she isn’t happy with the way life is going, she makes a choice (albeit an impulsive, less than legal choice), she pooled some resources, and hit the road…alone to try and make her dreams come true. Who are we to judge, she wanted something and she went for it. Don’t we all do some crazy things sometimes? #judgementfree

RESILIANT (Anne Ramsay as Sarah Logan in The Taking of Deborah Logan [2015]) Ah, one of my favorite films. Anne Ramsay is definitely not alone in her portrayal of strong women in this film, but I chose her for a reason. Sarah Logan is indicative of so many women. She is real, she has real problems, she has a life, a family, and she wants to do the right thing. Unfortunately the right thing is really hard and it requires her to have strength and above all resilience. By no means is she perfect, but she overcomes and in my opinion is the closest thing we have to a modern make-over of the final girl.

PUTS HER MIND TO IT (Sissy Spacek as Carrie White in Carrie [1976]) Sometimes it is time to say enough is enough. When Carrie White hits that point she uses her mind to take care of things…literally. I find it no shock that a woman’s mind is represented as threatening and powerful in the horror film. That which is encapsulated within the female mind is a horribly threatening thing to traditionally established male power.

QUIRKY (Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina Barrons in Poltergeist [1982]) Zelda Rubinstein is one of the most memorable characters in my mind. She is quirky, smart, resourceful, and in tune to more than just the world in front of her face. She looks different to most, she acted a little different, and she knew about different things. But that is what makes her so beautiful, inside and out.

LOYAL (Denise Crosby as Rachel Goldman-Creed in Pet Sematary [1989]) Did you really think I would make it through a list without mentioning Pet Sematary?! I will be honest, I probably could have better used JoBeth Williams as Diane Freeling in Poltergeist (1982), but I already used that film. Rachel Creed is a loyal mother and wife. So loyal, in fact, that the first place she goes when she returns from the dead is to the arms of her husband to give him a big, fat, messy kiss. . . and maybe plunge a knife in his back. But I like to think it was because she just couldn’t live (or die) without him, so she wanted them to be together forever. At least that is the story I am sticking to right now.

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SHY AND SIMPLE (Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween [1978]) Lauded as one of the first final girls in history, Laurie Strode is awesome not because she fought back but because she gave us simple nerdy girls a good name. She made it pretty bad ass to be a normal girl. You didn’t have to be the popular girl, the hottest girl, the most athletic…you could carve pumpkins, do your homework, and still have an interesting life. Even if it’s because your older brother is a psychopath….but as a geeky woman who has an older brother, I completely understand.

VULNERABLE (Jodi Foster as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs [1991]) Some people credit Clarice with being the new final girl for her power, intellect and her persistence. I love her for her more tangible, human qualities. One of Clarice’s most striking qualities is her ability to be vulnerable, her ability to listen to herself and others and find strength from that darker place inside. People are never strong all the time and they don’t always kick ass. Clarice holds a special place for her vulnerability, which I feel ties directly into her relatability.

CHANGEABLE (Joan Crawford as Lucy Cutler Harbin in Strait Jacket [1964]) An often neglected film, Strait Jacket shows the ways that women (and people) are always changing. Both in appearance and in personality, Lucy runs the gamut through this film. The beauty of being human is that we have an endless ability to change, learn, adapt, and adjust. Lucy does this (and so does her daughter).

INDEPENDENT / RESOURCEFUL (Ashley Laurence as Kirsty Cotton in Hellraiser [1987]) No way this list is complete without Kirsty Cotton. When she doesn’t like her living situation, she moves out on her own. When she knows there is something fishy going on, she figures it out. When there is a crazy, hard-to-solve puzzle box in her hand, she solves it. When there are cenobites on her doorstep, she deals with it. Kirsty is an O.G. of independent and resourceful women in horror.

MYSTERIOUS (Myrna Loy as Ursula Georgi in Thirteen Women [1932]) Another widely neglected film on this list, Thirteen Women is a pre-code gem. It touts a largely female cast with a compelling and intriguing lead in Myrna Loy. Ursula Georgi pre-dates the remarkable Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) as an alluring, off-putting, and mysterious woman. Dawn and I have a journal article coming out soon about this film, which we will share with you all in the near future! Hope you all have time to see the film before our article, with its many spoilers, comes out.

DOES THINGS HER OWN WAY (Frances O’Connor as the living Venus de Milo in Freaks [1932]) Last and certainly not least, Frances O’Connor in the Tod Browning film, Freaks. This film does so much to turn the tables on what is normal. Furthermore, it reminds us that humans come in many shapes, sizes and abilities. The living Venus de Milo is one representation of a woman who gets things done in her own way.

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