By Sophia-Joelle Oswald
For a movie to pass the Bechdel Test it must have at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Which is, quite frankly, the bare minimum. Thousands of movies have been tested for the Bechdel Test, but less than 57% of the films in the database meet all three of these criteria.
Horror is the only film genre where women speak as often as men. Shocking, right? (Ha, see what we did there.)
Many horror movies put women at the center, giving them a chance to tell their own stories and share their points of view.
As with all genres, there was a time when horror movies constantly portrayed female characters in an unempowering light. The final girl trope is the perfect example of this. The final girl is the last woman left alive at the end of a horror or slasher film. She alone is still standing, left to either defeat the killer or describe the series of events to the authorities. The final girl is a major part of many successful horror movies like Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween.
Carol J. Clover is credited for the final girl theory, which she describes in her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. As Clover explains, the final girl is a victim-hero. After surviving a film, typically packed full of stabbing, occult references, or rape revenge, she comes out on top in the end.
If a viewer doesn’t think too much about the last woman standing at the end of the film, it is easy to interpret this as an encouraging message. Yay, a woman took down the bad guy! Parts of this are great. Men who watch these films are forced to see the story from a woman’s point of view and often see her come out on top, defeating the bad guy, but the final girl is far from perfect.
This trope has seen development over the years, but in the past, she was almost always a virgin who was praised for being this pure and untouchable being. She is unique because of this and the fact that she didn’t partake in drugs or alcohol.
The film industry has always been dominated by men. In 2019, men still outnumbered women four to one in key roles within the industry—one of the key reasonswhy so many film tropes have deep roots in misogyny. During the women’s liberation movement, many filmmakers chose to send the message of their disapproval through film, and that includes horror movies.
“Feeling threatened, horror giants in Hollywood began killing and torturing fictional facsimiles of the liberated woman, depicting her as amoral, inferior, and vapid,” Grace Pulliam explained in this Reveille opinion piece. “They punished her with a painful, sensational death, playing out these scenarios over and over again on the silver screen.”
Women who broke away from the pure standards placed on them by being sexual or partaking in activities that weren’t considered feminine were often brutally murdered in these scary films. Women who did what they were told were rewarded by living through terror.
It is also worth noting that women are often portrayed through the lens of the male gaze, which empowers men and sexualizes women. Films created with the male gaze set female characters up to be objects with little opinions of their own. This theory is credited to feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey. She shed a light on misogyny in film and encouraged both viewers and filmmakers to question this norm.
This way of depicting women has dominated the film industry for years leading us to absorb this harmful content—and we start consuming it early on in life. Films created with the male gaze at the forefront work to meet the fantasies of men and teach women how to feel about themselves. They instill us with harmful ideology. The male gaze not only encourages men to look at women as objects and talk down to them, but it negatively influences women’s self-esteem.
There is something impactful about knowing the history of film, and being able to implement this knowledge to help pick and choose movies that give women a chance to tell their stories. While many horror movies are packed full of sexual objectification and misogyny, there are still plenty out there that will leave you feeling empowered and the perfect amount of scared.
If you’re looking for horror movies that include badass women and their stories, you’ve come to the right place.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
CW: violence, blood, gore, sex, nudity, transmisia
The Silence of the Lambs is a film most horror lovers have seen. It tells the story of FBI agent Clarice Starling as she interviews cannibalistic serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. She is seeking information from Hannibal to crack the case of another serial killer, Buffalo Bill.
This film is empowering in some ways and lacks awareness in others. While Buffalo Bill is not trans, the Silence of the Lambs plays a complicated role in the world of trans cinema. It depicts a popular trans trope that is inaccurate. It would be unfair to talk about the positives this movie offers while skipping over the common and hurtful depiction of trans people as villains.
As far as women go, this movie does an immaculate job with FBI trainee Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster. This character is arguably one of the most important women to exist in cinema. Foster’s depiction of Clarice makes for a strong feminist icon that many women cherish.
Through the use of film techniques, this story is told from Clarice’s perspective. She doesn’t look into the camera, while the men do. When the men are shown, it’s up close, personal, and clearly from Clarice’s perspective. This empowers her. When she is looked at by the men around her, this is done in a way that is noticeable and makes the viewer uncomfortable. By doing this they shy away from the idea that this is acceptable.
As BBC states, this film is a strong commentary on sexual harassment. This film showcases what it is like to be a woman in a male-dominated field. Starling shines from the start and she powers through the isolated environment she faces at work. She takes on challenges head-on and is put in charge of getting information for Hannibal. When focusing on her character it is hard not to feel empowered by her character throughout the film.
The Craft (1996)
CW: violence, gore, sex, nudity, assault, racism
Sarah Bailey may be the new girl in school but she quickly finds her way into a group of three young girls. The thing they have in common is magic. The Craft is a coming-of-age story that follows four teenage witches and their coven as they get the hang of their powers. They don’t realize what forces their meddling with and quickly conjure up more than they can handle.
This film has been loved by many women over the past few decades. It offers a group of unique misfits that are easy to identify with. They are navigating a world filled with harassment and bullying, which we’ve all been through or witnessed, and turn to magic for revenge. All women are confronted with the rude comments and expectations placed on us, and through this movie, we can find an escape. We can enjoy watching them get their revenge, even if it unravels in the end.
The Stepford Wives (1975/2004)
CW: sexual content, language
This feminist thriller is based on Ira Levin’s novel of the same name. The book has been praised as a feminist read that is still relevant today. The film itself may not give you the major scares you’re looking for, but the concept itself is very creepy. Just as you can sometimes sit through an episode of Black Mirror unscathed, the idea at the heart of this film will creep up on you as you continue to consider it after the film concludes. The 1975 version is much scarier and lacks the humor added in 2004.
After losing her job, Joanna and her family move from the city to the suburbs, where all the women seem to happily fill the roles of the perfect housewives and homemakers. They listen to every command their husbands deal out and are dedicated to satisfying their needs. Joanna tries to figure out what’s going on in Stepford, as these women don’t seem to have agency. Things are not as they seem.
The Stepford Wives has been pointed out as an influence in the creation of the hit horror movie Get Out, and Jordan Peele has acknowledged this as true. That should speak for itself. If you check out this film and enjoy it, you might try Don’t Worry Darling. You will find a similar concept and an outstanding performance from Florence Pugh.
Gone Girl (2014)
CW: violence, blood, sex, nudity
This is another film that started as a book and has faced a large debate on whether or not it is feminist or misogynist. Others have pointed out the white privilege that is clear through this story. When it came out in 2014, this went unnoticed by many. Instead, it was praised as one of the most feminist mainstream movies at the time.
There is a lot of value in seeing stories like these and understanding that women can be dark and twisted too. The feminist author Gillian Flynn behind this story has explained how irritating it is for female characters to most often be good and never touch the concepts of evilness. The existence of female villains is important.
There’s also the fact that we get to watch Amy Dunne succeed in punishing her husband for his infidelity. As the film plays out, she takes control of her own life and grows into her power. Her goals are the ones that drive the story—and admittedly leave us saying “good for her.”
Although it may be uncomfortable to admit, many women identify with Amy and wish they could seek revenge of their own. While Amy isn’t always kind to other women and there are complications in this story, it is easy to see the empowering pieces at play. You know, we support women’s rights, but we also support women’s wrongs.
CW: self-harm, suicide, abuse, violence
Midsommar follows a couple on the edge of breaking up and their friends as they head to Sweden to enjoy and study a rural community’s midsummer festivities.
Womanhood is at the center of this story. Perhaps most obvious is the fact that the spiritual leader of this group is a woman. The women in this community are encouraged to embrace their sexual power. We also see the celebration of nature as feminine.
The women in this film get to talk the most and fully express their emotions. As the film progresses, Dani can scream and cry out as she copes with her hurt. This is encouraged by the other women around her, and they help her through it. It’s not often that we witness a female character who is allowed to express her rage.
Last Night in Soho (2021)
CW: blood, violence, language, sexual assault, discussions of self-harm/suicide
Last Night in Soho tells a tale that is female-driven at its core. Some viewers questioned if that’s enough and found the film problematic, commenting on a story that could be read as anti-sex work, but the majority found this film to be powerful.
It follows Eloise, an aspiring fashion designer as she makes her way to London and settles into college life. It doesn’t take long for her to decide to move from the dorms into a rented room in a house owned by Ms. Collins. She finds herself able to travel to the 1960s at night through her dreams, where she follows an aspiring singer Sandie. Sandie is turned into a prostitute by a man she mistakenly trusted, and her story begins to weigh on Eloise.
Women from various generations are the primary focus of this film as the story is told from their perspectives. There are many differences between the lives lived by Sandie and Eloise and it can be uncomfortable to watch at times, but you’ll enjoy the beauty that is 1960s London as this women-centered story plays out.
Other feminist-friendly horror movies include Jennifer’s Body (2009), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), Ready or Not (2019), and Saint Maud (2019). The list goes on and on. Some contain a scene or two worthy of debate, but overall you will find many horror movies that explore womanhood and the scary things that come with it.
With each passing year, the film industry has become more welcoming to various communities. That means that those who may not have seen themselves in the media before now do. Beyond that, many commonly harmful tropes and misconceptions are being replaced with more accurate tales. Few movies are ever perfect, but it’s nice to spend your time watching the ones that try. If you want to feel empowered, but also get your scare on, these horror films are a great place to start.
Sophie Oswald (she/her) is a writer and creator currently living in Kansas City. She got her degree in mass media with an emphasis in film and video from Washburn University. She also has minors in art, history, and women’s studies. When Sophie isn’t writing or volunteering her time to social justice, she can be found hanging out with her pets.