Film & Television

Feminist Frights:
Halloween Horror with Women on Top

Horror is not a genre that’s often synonymous with feminism. Typically made to whet the appetites of adolescent males, horror often succeeds by leveraging some of the least feminist female stereotypes: the pure-as-driven-snow damsel in distress; the shameless slut (sorry) who gets what she deserves after abandoning her morals; the vindictive crone who lures unsuspecting men into acts of depravity . . . or curses younger, prettier women . . . or eats children. .  . or otherwise wreaks unwomanly havoc.

Aficionados of horror know these tropes all too well. In a classic scene from Wes Craven’s 1996 super-slasher/satirical film Scream, Randy, a teenage horror-geek, explains “Jamie Lee [Curtis] was always the virgin in horror movies. She never showed her tits ‘till she went legits . . . that’s why she always outsmarted the killer in the big chase scene at the end. Only virgins can do that. Don’t you know the rules?” Met with amused disbelief, he continues, “There are certain rules one must abide by to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one, you can never have sex. Big no-no, sex equals death, okay? Number two, you can never drink or do drugs. The sin factor, it’s a sin, an extension of number one. Number three, never ever ever, under any circumstances, say ‘I’ll be right back.’ ‘Cause you won’t be back . . . you push the laws, you end up dead.”

Luckily for us, directors over the years have pushed those laws and allowed a minority of heroines to prevail. Curtis, who, by the time the 2018 Halloween was released, was playing former teen babysitter Laurie Strode as both a mother and a grandmother (and hence no longer a virgin), is nobody’s victim. She’s an avenging angel, a cinematic cross between Joan of Arc and Rambo, eager for her chance to kill Michael Myers once and for all. 

Halloween is perhaps a great place to start as we take a look at some of the most feminist horror films that produce all the chills and thrills you might want this time of year without demeaning (or needlessly decapitating or dismembering) women. The original Halloween was released in 1978, directed by John Carpenter, produced by Debra Hill, and cowritten by the two of them. It was Curtis’s film debut and spawned eleven additional movies (including a new one, Halloween Kills, in theaters now). It received dismal to dismissive critical reviews at the time; The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael sneered, “Maybe when a horror film is stripped of everything but dumb scariness —when it isn’t ashamed to revive the stalest device of the genre (the escaped lunatic) — it satisfies part of the audience in a more basic, childish way than sophisticated horror pictures do.” But, audiences were then and remain today endlessly enthusiastic.

At this point, I need to stop and credit my younger brother, the source of the clip I shared earlier. He is both a feminist (for which he credits his childhood exposure to Star Wars and the brave and capable Princess/General Leia, as well as our brave and capable mother, Suzanne) and a horror movie expert. When I ran out of ideas for this story, he was quick to fill the gap. So, thank you, David.

Moving on. Predating Halloween by a couple of years, Carrie, directed by Brian de Palma and written by Lawrence D. Cohen, based on Stephen King’s epistolary first novel, can be considered the impetus for a sub-genre of revenge horror that has inspired such titles as, I Spit on Your Grave (1978). In Carrie, Sissy Spacek stars as the homeschooled and much bullied title character, who finally takes matters into her own telekinetically supernatural hands, burning down the school gymnasium and everyone in it. Under the — actually and metaphorically — bloody circumstances, it’s hard not to root for her.

If you prefer your monsters to be extraterrestrial, there is nothing as ghastly as the original Alien. Released just a year after Halloween, and directed by Ridley Scott and written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, Alien raised the bar for science fiction special effects — and for badass action movie heroines. Sigourney Weaver, who at the time had stage credits but was relatively unknown in Hollywood, plays Warrant Officer Ripley, the voice of reason and sole human survivor on the commercial spaceship Nostromo. She went on to star in three sequels. Although the camera lingers a bit too long on her scanty underwear, Ripley has long been considered an important step forward in a previously male-dominated genre. As far as her immortality as a feminist icon is concerned, pundits have said it best: She’s right. The men don’t listen to her. They all die. She’s left alone with her cat.

Another woman who succeeds in a typically male-dominated — and utterly horrifying — filmic situation is Clarisse Starling in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Silence of the Lambs. Jodie Foster won her second Oscar for the role as an FBI trainee sent to interview incarcerated cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in the hopes of finding at-large serial killer “Buffalo Bill.” Perpetually underestimated by her boss, the police, and forensics experts, Starling uses courage, tenacity, and her intellect to solve the case. The American Film Institute has named Foster’s Clarice the greatest heroine in film history. And, she’s appeared on greatest-character lists for both Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. Thirty years on, the film is still terrifying. Watch it with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

There are several newer titles that reexamine horror through a feminist lens. Both Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019) were written and directed by Ari Aster, and well represent the sub-genre of art-house horror. For true horror fans, both titles offer more than enough guts and gore, but they benefit from fine acting by A-list or emerging stars and more complex and sophisticated plots. Hereditary features Toni Collette as a grieving daughter, mother, and wife, who soon realizes that her late mother has passed down a deadly supernatural heritage that threatens to consume her entire family. Midsommar, a particularly dark film that oddly enough takes place in Sweden’s bright daylight, stars Florence Pugh (again a grieving heroine, this time because of an unthinkable familial murder-suicide) as the honored guest of an increasingly bizarre and deadly pagan festival. Both films are excellent, but not for the faint of heart. Be warned: there are sequences that will stay with you . . . for a very long time.

Similarly, Robert Egger’s 2015 The Witch earns props as an exceptionally highquality film that just happens to be gruesome enough for horror buffs. A young, at the time only somewhat discovered, Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit, Emma) is Thomasin, the eldest daughter of a devout puritan family that has been driven out of its 17th century community for excessive zealotry. When their youngest, still a baby, disappears, the family turns on itself, eventually laying the blame on Thomasin and inviting in the very evil they’re accusing her of. Suffice it to say, in terms of revenge, Carrie has nothing on Thomasin.

It’s five days until Halloween, and this list should last you until then. And, when October 31st rolls around again in 2022, we’ll have a new and supposedly final Halloween in the theaters: Halloween Ends.

Then again, can Halloween end? Does evil ever really die? You’ll have to ask Laurie Strode. (Or my brother.)

 

All of the titles mentioned here are available to rent on Amazon except the original Halloween, which can be found on Roku; I Spit on Your Grave, a remake of which can be found on Hulu; and Midsommar, which can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

 

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