We talk a lot about final girls in horror. Jamie Lee Curtis as the iconic Laurie Strode in the Halloween franchise is a symbol of suburban heroism in the face of paralyzing fear. Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott in the Scream movies reminds us that when you want to defend yourself against a murderous psycho sometimes you’ve got to take matters into your own hands. And Clear Rivers from the Final Destination movies was still dishing out free advice to those who dared to manipulate their own fate, even from the safety of her padded room. Each of these women (and many others) has become synonymous with the horror genre.
But they aren’t the only ones who have left a lasting impression in scary movies. There are other women in the genre who make horror have such a visceral effect on us. I’m talking about the villains and antiheroes whose stories are just as important but rarely discussed. Why do we continue to ignore them in a genre that has created such robust characterizations? In fact, it was reported just this year that horror is the only genre in which women have just as many lines as men—and many of those roles can be contributed to these darker, villainess characters.
And you can’t talk about these women who have helped define the genre without heralding Margaret Hamilton’s arresting performance as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. While not a traditional horror movie, its foreboding score, and Hamilton’s chilling laugh will forever haunt your nightmares. She serves as the very antithesis of Judy Garland’s innocent protagonist Dorothy, as they both feed off each other’s motivations to be validated as three-dimensional characters. Author Gregory Maguire explores more of The Witch’s (Elphaba) fascinating origin story in his book, Wicked. While she doesn’t make it to the ending credits in the movie (Dorothy sees to that right before), she is there throughout most of the film and driving as much of the narrative as Dorothy is. Her bitter ending is marked by the one thing she feared: water.
There’s also Piper Laurie as Margaret White in Carrie. She’s easily one of the most spellbinding characters—male or female—who’s ever appeared in a horror film. She rarely gets recognized for it, but Margaret is the main reason for everything that you see stem from the vengeful title character (played by Sissy Spacek). She’s fiercely protective of her daughter Carrie and is almost possessed by a fear of the devil—but at the same time embodies a manipulative evil of her own masked in God-fearing Christianity. Because of that, she presents a complex blend of sainthood and malevolence that could fool the casual viewer. But, like Elphaba in Maguire’s book, she’s also a victim of past trauma that has defined who she ultimately became. For Elphaba, it is a rebel warrior. For Margaret, it is someone who is always in a state of repent. It doesn’t make either of them less terrifying or weaker characters. But we know there is a lot more to them than meets the eye. As in The Wizard of Oz, once again it is the protagonist (Carrie) who sees to Margaret’s demise in order to break her hold from her. It’s a painful, dramatic persecution scene that finally sanctifies Margaret in perhaps the only way that could have found her some peace.
For a while, between the 80s and 90s, we saw vicious, dangerous female villains that were no less wonderful to watch, but were marked with a bitter frustration about them. They were either seeking revenge (Debbie Salt in Scream 2 and Pamela Voorhees in Friday the 13th), inexplicably deranged (Annie Wilkes in Misery) or a microcosm of events in their lives that made them what they are (Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction and Samara in The Ring). In a sense, they became known for only the malice they possessed. Then, as we entered the 2000s, something changed when it came to how women were being drawn in horror. The final girl element remained true for the protagonist, but she became a blend of protagonist and villain and morphed into one compelling character whose full-bodied story carried the entire movie with just as much empathy as fear. That said, in keeping with the rules of women protagonists in horror, she always made it to the ending credits.
Take, for instance, The Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (played by Sheila Vand). Early on we learn she’s a vampire and we instinctually want to ostracize her. But then, even with very little dialogue, we become mesmerized by her mere existence, marked by dark eyeliner, a checkered Freddy Krueger-like shirt, and sneakers—all hidden beneath a long black hijab. To top it off, she gets around a deserted town by skateboard. She disrupts our expectations about whom we typically root for, interrogating our own perceptions of morality—despite her thirst for blood.
The same can be said for Ruth (Alice Lowe) in Prevenge. A single mother-to-be triggered by a judgmental society that has not taken kindly to unwed mothers as well as her own fear of what lies ahead of her ultimately becomes a monstrous version of herself. On the one hand, we feel sympathy for her because she tries to get a job, tries to date, tries to make friends. But, driven mad by a palpable fear of motherhood and an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction, she creates an impression that her baby is telling her to commit heinous acts of retaliation. So, we’re left conflicted.
Similarly, Amelia (Essie Davis) in The Babadook is a mother completely at the end of her rope. Still reeling from the death of her husband, Amelia must deal with an unruly child all on her own—and feeling like she’s drowning. It gets to the point in which something as basic as her child saying he’s hungry and asking her to make him a plate sets her off. We’re conditioned to seeing perfect mothers handle every situation with grace and ease, so when Amelia throws all that out the window, she becomes the anti-mom—the mother we want to hate. But we can’t because we see a mother struggling and because so many women have been in her shoes. Then again, when she becomes possessed by the ghost in her son’s book, we quickly lose that empathy for her because we’re not sure whether she is pure evil or just suffering. And that’s what makes the character—and others like her—so great; because she makes us challenge what we value in women characters. Is it their sanctity, their passion, their ability to frighten us—or a combination of all of these things?
Spoiler alert: it’s all of the above. The fullness of the character, especially a woman who’s often written as dependent and one-dimensional, is what makes her so identifiable. It’s what makes them human, even when they have fangs or fly into the sky on a broomstick. Horror has always presented these women with full agency, and respected them free of judgment; because no matter what, their stories deserve to be seen and told. And that’s why horror matters to me.