Whether a hapless cheerleader or hardened FBI agent, women have played a pivotal role in horror films since King Kong, when the giant ape grabbed tiny Fay Wray in the 1933 black-and-white monster-movie classic. The female lead – often referred to as a Scream Queen – can simply be a victim waiting to be rescued by her male co-star or a fearless fighter of monsters (real and imagined) who is the last standing when all the blood has been spilled.
And while it may be genre that’s drawing more and more mainstream audiences to its thrills and chills – 2017 was the biggest year at the box office to date for horror movies, with the top 10 films in the genre grossing just shy of $1 billion at the box office, according to The Numbers – it’s also a subset of Hollywood movies that often balances the victimization of women with their exultation.
Leave it to Scream’s Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) to sum up how non-fans view horror: “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door,” says Prescott in the first of what would become a four-movie franchise with a lifetime box-office gross of more than $330 million. “It’s insulting.”
Often (rightly) accused of misogyny due to the depiction of helpless women as fodder for the monster or killer, in contrast, horror has also long been a champion of the kickass female who conquers or destroys all by the time the credits role. Many beloved horror films have a strong female lead, from the titular Carrie and Laurie Strode in Halloween, Ripley in the Alien franchise to more recently, Thomasin in The Witch and Annie in Hereditary.
“Whenever I mention horror films people always say, ‘Oh, the women always get murdered.’ That’s partially true but the actuality is more complex than just the women are there to be murdered,” says Beth Younger, Associate Professor of English at Drake University, who teaches a course in Gender in Horror Film. “There are so many ways to interpret and view the subtext in horror films.”
The representation of women in horror interacts with and reflects whatever is going on in culture at the time, adds Younger, whose class examines horror movies of the 1950s through today. “In the late fifties and early sixties, those were changing times in the USA. Birth control was becoming available, women, primarily white women, were working outside the home more and more. The invasion of women into the workplace. And that was incorporated into a lot of horror films… A lot of scholars see the late 60s and all the 70s as the most progressive period in horror. It started in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead and then we had Rosemary’s Baby and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween.”
Horror audiences have always been comprised almost equally of women and men. It’s one of the few genres that attracts so evenly across gender, in spite of the misogyny many believe complicit. Such misogyny may in fact be part of the appeal of the genre. Horror deals openly with questions of sexuality, gender and the body, subjects many women believe should be examined and discussed.
“Part of it is there is always punishment in horror,” says Younger. “Someone is getting punished for something they did, and so if someone gets killed, obviously they were killed on the surface level because they opened the door, but what does their character represent. Also, horror gives us a way to grapple with, on an unconscious level, things that are unsettled in culture. You always have to look at what is happening in the culture at the time a film is released. Like Rosemary’s Baby for example. There is so much in that about women’s experience of pregnancy, women’s experience of having their own feelings and perceptions doubted by everyone around them.”
Take the huge success of 2017’s horror-satire Get Out, which features a young, attractive female (Allison Williams) as the evildoer, alongside the equally villainous subtext of white liberal racism. Subverting notions of gender and race, Get Out grossed more than $176 million in 2017, a year during which Americans were bombarded with headlines about those very subjects.
But is Get Out a pure horror film, or simply a social thriller with added scares?
“Get Out is a whole other thing, even though it is horror it crossed over. I have friends who refuse to see anything scary and went and saw Get Out,” says Younger. “Horror is one of those subsets or genres of film that has a lot of overlap with others. There are always arguments over whether Alien, for example, is horror or a thriller or science fiction. Is Silence of the Lambs a horror film, is it a cop movie?”
Whether or not a film is, or is not, strictly horror, the appeal of the leading female character can’t be denied. And though, by nature of the Scream Queen descriptor, she can often be called upon to exercise her vocal talents, it’s really about how many squeals or screams the female lead can elicit from the audience. We engage emotionally with her as we follow along on a fright-filled journey to destruction, redemption or conquest. As the female protagonist learns more about their foe and how to defeat it, she learns more about herself; so too does the audience.
So embedded in our popular culture have these characters become, they can overtake all other work an actress may accomplish in her lifetime. “I recognize that it will be my biggest contribution,” says Jamie Lee Curtis, the proud daughter of one of the most famous Scream Queens in movie history - Psycho’s Janet Leigh - of her beloved horror persona Laurie Strode. “Despite writing books for children, all of my advocacy, all of my politics, all of my own personal journey, my legacy will be Halloween.”