A call for better roles for women in horror

Tuesday, October 20, 2015 - 5:09pm

“They’re all the same, some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act and who’s always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.”

You know what, Sidney, you’re right. Wes Craven’s 1996 hit “Scream” is famous for its self-awareness and irony (within the next five minutes, poor Sid will find herself running up the stairs, when she should, in fact, be going out the front door). Here, Sidney reminds the audience that something is seriously missing from the world of horror movies: strong women.

Women are prevalent in horror movies, especially teen horror movies. That being said, these women are cast to be killed, while the men are cast to do the killing. One girl, however, gets to survive and is thus dubbed the “final girl.” She survives by either escaping the killer or killing him herself, the latter being much more rare.

“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to survive a horror movie … number one, you can never have sex” claims Randy, resident horror movie nerd in “Scream.”

Somewhere along the line, sex got tangled up inseparably in horror films. A female character’s sexuality detracts greatly from her survivability, almost to the point that sex equals death. In the 1978 teen-slasher-classic “Halloween,” Jamie Lee Curtis’s character Laurie is characterized as being the virgin of her friend group. For this, she gets to live. Her sexually active friends, however, meet quite different fates. One is strangled on her way to meet up with her boyfriend, while the other is killed half-clothed beside the bed she and her boyfriend just shared.

The parallel this draws is incredibly problematic. Equating sex to violence feeds into the idea of male dominance and female submission. It normalizes the dichotomy of women as either “the temptress” or “the virgin.” Horror movies, it seems, are one of the only mainstream art forms that take a clear side. The temptress dies and the virgin lives. Female sexuality is only punished, rather than being both encouraged and shamed, as is the case in many other genres of film and TV.

In the post-Buffy era of teen horror movies, a girl can sometimes have sex and survive. Sidney Prescott survived “Scream” despite unknowingly sleeping with her tormentor, who is actually her boyfriend (oddly relatable for anyone who got dumped in high school) minutes before he sends her on the classic final chase scene. Sidney even gets the honor of shooting him in the head, a job many other final girls must relinquish to their male saviors. In “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” Julie, despite being the one to unravel the film’s central mystery, can ultimately only be saved by her boyfriend, a pattern in most teen horror films. The final girl supplies the brains, but is dead without the brawn of a male counterpart.

As a woman, horror movies are one of my “problematic faves,” something like “Blurred Lines” that you still like despite its terrible portrayal of women. But, my love of the horror genre doesn’t have to be problematic. There is so much room for complicated female villains (not the same as female monsters á la “Carrie” who are creatures driven to evil by their failure to adapt to society) and female protagonists whose strength, rather than sexuality, determine how long they survive.

Independent and foreign horror films are already breaking into this new world of girl-power-horror. Last year, the Persian vampire thriller “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” (I know, the title itself is terrifying) was lead by a complicated female antihero. “The Babadook” from Australian director Jennifer Kent, paints a terrifying picture of motherhood through its complex female lead. These films succeed because they blur the clean cut line between good and evil drawn in many other horror films, “the temptress” and “the virgin” no longer stand in stark opposition.

So, with Halloween rapidly approaching and studios releasing their annual display of horror films, I am hoping to find some more power and independence from the female protagonists. This year’s “The Final Girls,” a self-aware horror movie within a horror movie, from director Todd Strauss-Schulson carries the potential to reinforce commentary made by “Scream” on the flaws of the genre. And Guillermo del Toro’s newest “Crimson Peak” tempts Mia Wasikowska as a revamped final girl. It is about time the mainstream horror genre catches up to its foreign and independent counterparts and begins portraying women as powerful, complex and capable of both good and evil.