An Incomplete History of Feminist Heroines in Horror Cinema

Think horror films are just for men or that because you’re a feminist, you should feel opposed to the horror genre? Well, think again! Sink your fangs into this sampling of moments when feminist commentary was embedded within the celluloid of horror films throughout history.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935): Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), the author of Frankenstein, opens the film, spinning a gruesome yarn to her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, reminding audiences that one of the progenitors of horror storytelling was a woman. Lanchester also plays the titular Bride, and her bloodcurdling scream at the realization of her intended purpose—the love object of a monster—is one for the ages.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936): Lesbian undertones run rampant throughout this Universal sequel, most notably when the titular vampiress (Gloria Holden) slowly hovers over the woman she’s holding hostage and leans down to plant a kiss—although censors at the time obviously had that interrupted.

Eyes Without a Face (1960): After fleeing the oppressive control of her father, who has been murdering women to obtain a surgical transplant for her new face, Christiane escapes into the open woods to freedom.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968): In a film that displayed the full horrors of the loss of bodily autonomy, sexual violence and satanic cults, Rosemary’s pixie haircut was her one way of radically reclaiming her body (not to mention launching a popular new hairstyle for the decade).

Carrie (1976): Carrie triumphantly stands up to her crazed, religious-fanatic mother (Piper Laurie) when she tries to shame Carrie for her breasts showing under her dress, calling them “dirty pillows.” “Breasts, mama. They’re called breasts, and every woman has them.”

Halloween (1978): While it may have unintentionally set off the “sluts die/virgins live,” trope in horror films to follow, the scenes of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her teenage girlfriends smoking pot, gossiping and talking about getting laid was well ahead of its time. Also, as noted by film writer Kate Hagen, observe the weapons Laurie uses to fight back against her attacker, Michael Myers: knitting needles (commonly associated with the feminine, domestic sphere), a coat hanger (which in the 1970s was synonymous with Roe v. Wade and the fight for abortion rights), and a knife (usually a signifier for the phallus in slasher-film analyses).

Aliens (1986): Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley to the alien herself: “Get away from her, you BITCH!”

The Craft (1996): As Nancy (Fairuza Balk) says, “We are the weirdos, mister.”

American Psycho (2000): Director Mary Harron switches the male gaze on killer Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) through camera shots that surveil his nude body, home and lifestyle, essentially demonstrating how his vanity and material possessions inform his masculinity.

Ginger Snaps (2000): Death-obsessed sisters Ginger and Brigitte photograph each other in staged scenes of their deaths in their neighborhood for a school art project in perhaps the most direct statement of anti-suburbia ever.

Teeth (2007): Oh, what female hasn’t dreamt of the power of vagina dentata?

Under the Skin (2013): Finally, a way for men to understand how dangerous being picked up by strangers off the street—albeit attractive ones such as Scarlett Johansson’s alien She—can be, even for them.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014): Dressed in a dark chador, a mysterious Iranian woman who is secretly a vampire (Sheila Vand) haunts the streets at night and harasses back her harassers—including a pimp, from whom she takes a prostitute’s earnings and gives them back to her.

The Witch (2015): At the very end [SPOILER ALERT!], adolescent Puritan girl Thomasin decides to “live deliciously” with the other witches in the woods, and they ascend into the night air during their Pagan ritual.

The Love Witch (2016): Everything about Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is subversive, from its dissection of male-centric film conventions and cultural archetypes to its use of Technicolor film stock to make it resemble an actual Hammer horror picture from the late 1960s. But a special shoutout goes to the scene of Elaine (Samantha Robinson) making a potion with her own urine and a used tampon. “Tampons aren’t gross,” Elaine’s voice-over tells us. “Women bleed, and it’s a beautiful thing. Did you know that most men have never seen a used tampon?” Amen, sister.

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