Being a horror fan and a feminist are not two things that go together easily. Horror films have a documented history of misogyny, oversexualization, and the exploitation of women. Rarely are they written with a nuanced understanding of the complex nature of gender and sexuality, or even with particularly well-written characters. But every now and then there will be a gem in the horror genre that nails it: the story is compelling, the suspense thrilling, and the female protagonists are awesome as hell. After years of sifting through what modern horror has to offer, I have curated this list of horror films you can enjoy without having to mentally pause being a feminist.
Due to the dependency of horror films on their twists I will do my best to avoid spoilers in this piece, but they are possible. I will mark them clearly where applicable. I would also like to mention that I have limited myself to horror films from 2000 and after for the purpose of this article, because classic horror truthfully deserves a spotlight of its own. Lastly, I have not labeled these films with any trigger warnings because, due to the very nature of the genre, there will obviously be disturbing themes images in all of them. If you have trauma that is triggered easily, please research beforehand or watch at your own discretion.
6. House of the Devil, 2009
The first awesome thing about House of the Devil by Ti West, is that it’s a carefully crafted love letter to ’80s horror. The aesthetic, the cinematography, the set dressing- all of it is meticulously chosen, and the result is an airtight homage. I would say that the protagonist of House of the Devil, Samantha, is perhaps not as obviously badass as some of the other women on this list. What she lacks in badassery, she makes up in relatability. She is a poor college student who is strapped for cash and doing everything in her power to better her situation. The desperation that is her inevitable downfall is not only understandable, it also makes this movie more frightening as many of us have been there; the haunting implication is that this could have happened to any one of us. Ultimately, when put between a rock and a murdered place, Samantha fights tooth and nail for her life after being compromised and blinded by her desperate need for funds.
[Yarr, there be spoilers ahead]
5. The Awakening, 2011
The Awakening is your classic ghost haunting film, but with 100% more Bran from Game of Thrones. This movie’s female protagonist is kind of the coolest person ever. Florence Cathcart is a professional skeptic and Ghost Hunter in 1920s England, like way before those Roto Rooter guys had a television show. Set at a school in the English countryside, this film is a gorgeously-orchestrated period piece in its own right, with a level of detail to make a set or costume designer drool. The scares are subtle and affective, and as revelations unravel and Florence begins to lose her cool, so will you. Florence is a character with a tragic and rich background, she is vulnerable and intelligent and very well-acted by Rebecca Hall. This movie employs the psychological device of constantly wondering whether the main character is going insane, and that sort of stuff always gets me anxious and flustered without fail.
4. The Innkeepers, 2011
The Innkeepers, also by Ti West, features two disgruntled hotel employees on the last weekend before their supposedly haunted place of employment closes its shutters for good. The female protagonist, Claire, is an amateur ghost hunter who has a fascination bordering on obsession with the legend of a woman who was murdered in the hotel. She and her male co-worker are the only two working at the hotel for the entirety of the weekend, and she seizes her final opportunity to try and make contact with the legendary ghost.
What I love most about Claire is that she gets over-the-top excited. She is a person who gabs unashamedly about her interests and allows herself to get worked up into a frenzy. This is a trait that I share with Claire, so it definitely endeared me to her. Secondly she is brave, and in fact is far braver than her male counterpart, who supposedly knows more about ghost hunting than she does. When truly creepy supernatural things begin spooking the pair, Claire does not back down and in fact embraces the opportunity to meet the ghost that has been the subject of her obsession for years. Claire is a strong, naturally curious person who also allows herself to be very emotional, and unlike many other horror movies this film does not punish her for allowing her emotions to dictate her behavior. I feel like in a lot of films, women can either be strong or they can be emotional- in The Innkeepers, this is thankfully not the case.
3. The Orphanage (El Orfanato), 2007
The Orphanage is probably the best ghost/haunting horror film I’ve ever seen. It feels more like a tense mystery story as the main character, a devoted mother named Laura, tries to solve the enigmatic death of a little boy. After purchasing the orphanage where she grew up, Laura moves in with her husband and son to refurbish the old building into a children’s hospital. Once her own son’s life becomes dependent on uncovering the truth, she will stop at nothing to protect him.
Despite the insistence of her husband that she is becoming hysterical and losing her mind, Laura soldiers on, focused on nothing but doing everything in her power to save her son. Laura is a character with a heart larger than most; she genuinely cares for the small, troubled ghost boy that needs her help. In combination with the love she has for her son, she is a lead character who is not fearless, but who makes a conscious decision in every breath to ignore her fear and keep moving. I particularly love the end scene of this movie.
2. Cabin in the Woods, 2012
Cabin in the Woods does an excellent job of subverting the tropes regulating gender in horror; but that should be no surprise since it was penned by master of gender trope subversion Joss Whedon. In fact, the entire point of Cabin in the Woods is that these tropes that we ascribe to are not an accurate representation of the complex nature of human beings. Counter to what unimaginative horror films or, indeed, the majority of mass media would have you believe, we cannot be boiled down to one significant character trait- the jock, the slut, the brainiac, etc. Cabin in the Woods provides an explanation for why these tropes are part of our cultural canon, and does so with unparalleled wit and imagination. It’s really difficult for me to discuss this film without spoilers, but I’m going to try.
Dana, the main female protagonist of the film, is a relatable character who you instinctively want to root for. She is set up as the stereotypical female heroine: incredibly simple, reserved, and, of course, less ‘slutty’ than her blonde friend who is inevitably murdered. But as the movie goes on Dana reveals herself to be far more complicated, eventually deciding to get mad AND even after the truth of the bloody turn of their cabin-trip weekend comes forth. As the movie derails exponentially, Dana simply does everything she can to survive, and is forced to rise to the occasion when it comes to literally deciding the fate of humanity.
1. The Babadook, 2014
The Babadook is the story of single mother Amelia, who lost her husband tragically on the day her son was born. Several years later her young son, Sam, is displaying troubling behavior at home and at school. The adorable doe-eyed boy is obsessed with fighting monsters with machines of his own design, and it is clear that mother and son are constantly teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. After Sam finds a mysterious pop-up book about a horrific monster named Mister Babadook, the pair are launched into their own nightmarish encounter with the Babadook in a surreal series of increasingly violent events. Ultimately, they begin to lose whatever tenuous grip on sanity they had before finding the book, and it is unclear to the viewer how many of the film’s events are occurring in reality.
This is the first feature film from Australian director Jennifer Kent, and makes me excited and hopeful for a long list of expertly-crafted horror films from her in the future. What I love about the protagonist, Amelia, is that she is a woman who is allowed to be in powerful and vulnerable in the same breath. Her struggle as a single mother trying to balance severe PTSD and raising an emotionally troubled son is raw and real, and the two lead actors make you both hate and fear for their characters effortlessly. I could literally write a thesis on this film, so I’ll have to leave it there.
[spoilers] What I love most about The Babadook is that it can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for struggling with mental illness. Ultimately the monster, or the darkness/illness within all of us, cannot be destroyed. We can, however, learn to manage it and cope, although sometimes this happens for us after we are forced into the deepest depths of our personal nightmares.[/spoilers]
As of April, all of these films except for The Orphanage are on Netflix. So pop yourself some popcorn, turn off the lights, cuddle up with a buddy and prepare to be delightfully scared! Are there any horror films that you would’ve like to see on this list? Are there any horror films with horrifically terrible female characters?
Rachel Catlett lives in North Texas with her two dachshunds, Liz Lemon and Arthur, and her husband. She has degrees in literature and anthropology, and loves to put way too much thought into pop culture and feminism. In her heart, you will find Legos, salsa, and a David Bowie album. On her head, you will never find her natural hair color. If you would like to follow her on Twitter, she is there as @rachfab.
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