It’s no secret that most horror films follow pretty specific formulas (varying somewhat depending on their sub-genres — slasher, supernatural horror, thriller, etc.)
In fact, the idea of the formulaic horror film was even parodied in the classic self-aware horror movie Scream, a movie so chock-full of meta-consciousness that it even started its own horror sub-genre: scary movies that feature characters who have seen all the scary movies.
But perhaps no horror movie cliche is more observed and understood than that of the Final Girl — the lone female who survives to the end of the movie, long after most of the other characters have been killed, and inevitably confronts whatever Big Bad may be threatening her. It is with this character that we have come to discover the term “Scream Queen.”
The phenomenon is particularly noteworthy given that most other movie genres still either mostly ignore female characters, or portray them in superficial or stereotypical ways.
Perhaps the Final Girl that sparked the current trend in horror is Laurie Strode, a young babysitter played by Jamie Lee Curtis who was stalked by a masked serial killer in John Carpenter’s terrifying masterpiece Halloween.
In many ways, Laurie is the prototypical Final Girl: she begins the story as a normal, unassuming young woman, a student in high school, in fact. She often questions her own abilities just in everyday life.
But when the going gets tough (and her friends get hacked and slashed), she discovers an inner strength she didn’t know she had and becomes capable of fighting back against the bad guy, and often succeeds in vanquishing him.
In fact, it almost sounds like your standard Hero Myth.
So does this make the horror genre, well … feminist?
It’s true that these movies sometimes include scenes of women being victimized, enduring things that male characters are rarely subjected to — and sometimes seemingly for the “entertainment” of the audience.
And let’s face it: these movies are almost always written and directed by men.
But unlike almost every other film genre, women are usually the “movers” in horror films — the protagonists, the central characters who drive the action.
What a concept!
Some even see a kind of feminist symbolism at work: the killers, who are almost always male, symbolize the misogynistic hatred that some men have for women, and are often armed with a knife or stabbing instrument — a representation of the phallus in its most violent form — which they then use to murder the Other (women) along with their own rivals (men).
The Final Girl, in order to defeat the Killer, must then assume a phallus of her own — grabbing a butcher knife from the kitchen, finding a shovel in the garage — that she then turns upon the owner of the true phallus, the Killer/Man.
Once the Killer is slain, the Final Girl will often look with revulsion on her murder weapon — a symbol of her momentary descent into masculinity — before she casts it aside, hoping to never be forced to wield it again.
In many ways, this is unabashedly pro-female. And yet usually these movies are targeted to young, adolescent males, with the promise of not only gratuitous gore, but the high probability of seeing a young woman topless.
But that’s specifically slasher films. What of horror films that deal with the supernatural?
Recently, there was a spate of horror films based on Japanese movies, such as The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water, etc. All of these films featured a woman as the protagonist who goes up against not a flesh and blood male killer, but evil spirits and ghosts.
Intriguingly, these films place the female’s intellect above all their other attributes — as the stories mostly involve them having to solve some sort of mystery in order to discover why they are being plagued by the restless evil dead.
But what about when women are also the antagonists? In 1968, Roman Polanski terrified the world with Rosemary’s Baby, a chilling demonic thriller about a young urban couple who move into a creepy old apartment building that hosts some eccentric neighbors.
Rosemary, played by Mia Farrow, soon becomes pregnant, and is attended by her elderly neighbor Minnie, who, it later turns out, is conspiring with just about everyone else in Rosemary’s life to help bring the devil’s child — Rosemary’s child — into the world.
Never was a kindly old woman creepier.
And in 1996, goth high school girls had their day in the sun (or, more likely, their day hiding from the sun) when The Craft opened in theaters. The film featured four girls, all outcasts, who spend their day learning spells and magic, which they use to their own selfish ends.
When one of the girls, Sarah, realizes the harm they might be doing, the alpha girl of the group, Nancy, turns the other two against her, and the suspenseful plot leads up to an all-out magical battle as the two girls take each other on.
Despite the stereotype of horror films being a guy’s-movie type of film, anyone who’s gone to see a horror film in the theaters in the past decade knows that girls and women are extremely well-represented in the audience, often outnumbering the men.
Why would this be? Well, women no doubt enjoy seeing other women on the screen in powerful roles, not as militant post-gender warriors, but as realistic women who become heroic when the situation calls for it. Duh.
Filmmakers, of course, know full well the price they must pay to be able to tell these “feminist” stories: in order to draw the adolescent boys into the theaters too, they have to offer more than a little gore and a female nipple or two.
But when you consider that in 2009, these female-driven stories still aren’t really being told anywhere else, well, that’s a price worth paying, don’t you think?
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