Women have been raped, abused, and butchered in horror films for as long as permitted by censorship, all for the purpose of good ol’ entertainment. Bloodied bodies lay bare, bruised and broken. Females are tortured in the cruelest of ways, victimised as helpless vessels unable to fight, escape or survive their terrifying circumstances. Whether they are lifelessly dissected on tables or hunted by maniacs, it is difficult to appreciate and enjoy a genre seemingly fixated on destroying the essence of our corporeal beings. And then there is the consistent manifestation of issues with diversity. Women of colour are problematically typecast into stereotypically negative roles or films are whitewashed in favour of ‘well-known actresses’, their narratives relegated to the sidelines, merely agents of white women’s survival. How can a form of cinema so racially exclusive and misogynistic be a place to discover female empowerment?
Well, thankfully, there are instances since the noughties where women have retaliated against entrenched sexism and racism discovering their own personal strength and narrative reign. Although the genre has a long journey to make in creating an equal platform for women, examples of horror cinema possessing the ability to subvert stale, harmful formulas do exist. To coincide with International Women’s Day, here is a frustratingly short but nonetheless inspiring list of 21st Century heroines, each actively defying a typically misogynistic and xenophobic genre. Providing us with representations from across the globe, the females are powerful and independent characterisations who commend the strength of all women in the face of terror.
The ‘Final Girls’ of horror widely recognised and studied in film criticism since the 1970s – with archetypal examples in Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson and Sidney Prescott – all have one undeniable characteristic: they’re white. Alongside this, a common theme in popular cinema sees black women repeatedly positioned as catalysts for said white women’s survival, their narrative arcs undermined or shunned to allow the Scream Queen to shine. Even recent films The Final Girls (2015) and Final Girl (2015), both self-reflexively playing into the style of genre, solidify this by only featuring white actresses. The awesome, referential Graveyard Shift Sisters blog specifically explores the racial issues of such trends: BJ Colangelo states ‘a token character is defined as “done for the sake of appearances or as a symbolic gesture.” This means that the character is plugged into the mix out of obligation. In horror movies, white people have never been token’, our roles uncontested. However, as the blog aims to recognise and praise, there are films with both black female directors and/or characters that do not tokenise or play into damaging stereotypes.
A brilliant example is Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002): an iconic, influential British release actively reversing racism with a black female character who isn’t relegated to a side-story nor slain for white-centered narrative purposes. Frustratingly, the rising fame of Cillian Murphy – who plays male lead Jim – during the film’s release lessened the impact of Naomi Harris’ crucial performance but her character Selena has since been granted rightful iconic status. The badass zombie-fighting survivalist has an integral role throughout the apocalyptic film: she is a complex protagonist who is resilient and weak, both ruthless and compassionate. Through this characterisation, the film is deconstructing clichés painting black women in US horror film as either aggressive, sassy, or insignificant. Selena does not exist in a limiting one-dimensionality: although she murders an infected companion to protect the group, she is simultaneously vulnerable and needs Jim to save her from a vicious rapist. 28 Days Later proudly illustrates depth and authenticity in the lead female’s role and refuses to perpetuate harmful attitudes about black women. You don’t have to be a horror fan to appreciate Selena is one of the coolest and most influential Final Girls around.
A similar racial trend is present in the vampire genre, with female fanged-protagonists in popular cinema dominated by white women. Although there are exceptions with women of colour in the lead role – such as Grace Jones’ Katrina in Vamp (1986) or Aaliyah’s Akasha in Queen of the Damned (2002) – they are just this: exceptions to cinema’s problematic rule. In defiance of this trend, Ana Lily Amirpour’s directorial debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is a groundbreaking vampiric addition adamantly refusing to follow any filmic conventions. Described as ‘the first Iranian feminist vampire western’, the film’s on-screen heroine who is credited mysteriously as ‘The Girl’ – an effortlessly cool Sheila Vand – is a skateboarding chador-wearing badass. Roaming the streets late at night, she protects the vulnerable women of her fictional ‘Bad City’ by scaring, maiming or murdering those posing a threat to female safety. On one occasion, after witnessing sex worker Atti (Mozhan Marnò) being mistreated by her pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains), The Girl pretends to seduce him before fatally biting his neck. On another, she stalks one of Atti’s drug addicted clients who causes her bother by spooking him in the dead of the night.
But she isn’t just a protector of women, we also witness intimate moments in her apartment which humanise her character and give her a sense of vulnerability. Upon meeting a troubled man named Arash – an equally cool Arash Marandi – she invites him to her apartment where they share an intimate moment to White Lies’ song ‘Death’. After a troublesome incident, she persuades Arash to leave the town with her, needing a companion for the lonely road. Like Selena, she isn’t confined to a one-dimensional stereotype: she is neither ‘sexy’ nor ‘evil’ but both seductive and vulnerable, caring and cold-hearted. Fusing both cultures and genres, the Persian-language black-and-white mash-up is a visually and narratively refreshing take on horror cinema, with Amirpour creating something entirely new. Essential viewing for any cinema lover, it is an utter triumph on both an artistic and feminist level.
If you weren’t already aware of the awesome filmmaker and actress Desiree Akhavan, Creep 2 (2017) is the excuse you didn’t need to get to know the Iranian-Brooklynite. Rising to fame with her directorial debut Appropriate Behaviour (2014) – exploring the trials and tribulations of a recently single bisexual woman in New York City – she returns to our screens in a much darker but equally brilliant role. Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass wrote, directed, and starred in Creep (2014), a relatively unknown found-footage film centring on serial killer Josef (Duplass) and his unsuspecting victim Aaron (Brice). Last year, Josef – now disturbingly referring to himself as Aaron – is back with another off-kilter film, except now he’s experiencing a mid-life crisis and is in desperate need of reinvention. Unenthused by his killing rampages, he mysteriously advertises for someone to document his plan for revival. Cue Akhavan as Sara, a dissatisfied video artist who’s failing YouTube channel titled ‘Encounters’ propels her into responding to Aaron’s vague craigslist advert, hopeful to finally create decent content. Although immediately aware of the dangers involved in the situation – ‘every red flag you have has been raised’ she says to herself – she is simultaneously intrigued, committing for the sake of her career – ‘he is everything you ever wanted in a subject […] you have to chase this’. But, we are not left screaming at our screens in aggravation of Sara’s naivety. Bringing a level of quick-wit and dark humour to rivals Duplass’, the female protagonist immediately situates herself on an equal playing field to her male counterpart, probing his peculiar behaviour and refusing to submit.
What’s more, the film does not resort to using senseless violence or unsolicited nudity of Sara but rather unusually implicates Aaron in this position: for example, he is framed in a full-frontal shot whereas the female’s naked body is deliberately obscured. Whilst horror is notorious for painting female characters as damsels in distress – our incessant screams for help a signifier of our need to be protected – Creep 2’s female badass is a total inversion of such cinematic dependency. Aaron continually lurks in the shadows or behaves disturbingly to scare Sara, but she never flinches or reacts. Rarely explored with such success, we have a female character who brings a much-needed sense of fearlessness and psychological manipulation to the narrative. Giving a serial-killing-megalomaniac a run for his screen-time money, Akhavan’s WoC protagonist provides a very refreshing and much-needed addition to the horror genre.
Julia Ducournau’s coming-of-age narrative Raw (2016) follows two sisters’ dizzyingly sumptuous and disturbing journey into cannibalism. Female adolescence and sexual discovery are repeatedly explored through the horror cannon; kicking off with the menstrual-mania of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1977) and ever present in recent cult classics Ginger Snaps (2000) and Jennifer’s Body (2008). But few ooze the authentic and revelatory nature of Ducournau’s directorial debut. We’ve seen on-screen cannibals devour human flesh as an interrogation of societal values with the Texan hillbilly family in Tobe Hooper’s chainsaw nightmare and Patrick Bateman’s serial-killing yuppie. But never before has the consumption of human flesh provided such an insightful analogy for female sexual experience and adulthood. Following lifelong vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) as she joins her elder sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) at a prestigious French veterinary school, the mandatory hazing ritual of eating rabbit kidney immediately draws the teenager into a dark obsession with flesh. The difficulties of traversing adulthood, sex and independence in an alien environment of debauchery and freedom are explored through Justine’s newfound dependency on human meat, one her sister also shares. Their inability to control their circumstances and the weight of family expectations is manifested through their increasing appetite for the forbidden, similarly to the pattern of eating disorders or addictions. Although it isn’t for the fainthearted – with many gory scenes verging on unwatchable – the underlying narrative interrogates our deepest fears about growing up for rewarding, affecting results. Evolving through Raw in a sort-of perverse bildungsroman, Justine develops from a meek and innocent individual into a tour-de-force of independence. Rarely has the topic of female adolescence been approached with such understanding and intelligence. Just, perhaps, refrain from watching on a full stomach.
Motherhood is a regularly explored topic of conversation in modern horror cinema, with no shortage of disturbing films interrogating our ‘darkest fears’: the Bates duo in Psycho (1960), demonic possession in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and bless the soul of anyone else who has been foolish enough to watch the sordidly messy Mother’s Day (1980). It will come as no surprise all of the aforementioned examples, part of a very long list, are deeply misogynistic, actively presenting women and their wombs as either deranged or evil – or both. In recent years however, the relationship between women and motherhood has been explored through a feminist lens. Although the Australian independent Babadook (2014) by female director Jennifer Kent is a popular example of cinema journeying into motherhood with progressive results, the spotlight should brought to another groundbreaking but lesser known release. Similarly to Kent’s film, Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow (2016) explores the constraints and challenges of motherhood and femininity, focusing specifically on the relationship between Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). However, the Persian-language film explores such topics through the perspective of Iranian society, setting the narrative during the Iran-Iraq ‘War of the Cities’ in Tehran. Despite husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) leaving for the frontline, bomb attacks on her apartment block worsening, and all other residents leaving for safety, Shideh stays in her home. Recently banned from studying medicine because of her involvement in the Iranian Revolution, Shideh stubbornly refuses to abandon all remaining freedom. Alone with Dorsa, both begin to experience ghostly apparitions referred to as jinn: spirits from Arab folklore and Islamic mythology who pose a violent, increasing threats to their sanity and wellbeing. Combining the physical war zone and the supernatural jinn as metaphors of Shideh’s fears about motherhood and independence, Anvari carefully explores the female perspective in a unique and affecting way. Forced into fighting for Dorsa’s safety, the narrative becomes a journey into discovering our darkest fears and how to confront their terrifying manifestations; both real and imagined. Although focusing on Iranian culture during the timeframe of the 1970s, Under the Shadow is timeless and just as relatable to the present day. Focusing on the underlying themes of both education and motherhood it relates globally to women’s struggle for independence. Masterfully acted by two superb female leads, the last addition to the list is by no means the least: like all those mentioned, it is a must-see.