No Longer Victims or Monsters

The Evolution of Women and their Role in Horror

by Raynee Quillen / Garnet & Black

You slowly get undressed, sweat sticking to your skin as you step into the showers after your P.E. class. Suddenly, you feel a throbbing ache from inside of you, bringing you to your knees as you cry out in equal parts shock and pain. You bring your hand down and when you raise it up to your face, it's covered in blood. Screaming, you run out of the shower, worried that you're dying and need help. But, as you look at everyone around you, you see faces of disgust instead of fear. "Plug it up!" they scream, throwing strange objects at you while you bring your hands up to cover your face. Your teacher stands off, refusing to stop the onslaught as the mob jeers at you, their insults confusing you even more as you feel the pain throb all the while.

What you just read was a scene adapted from the 1976 movie "Carrie," directed by Brain De Palma and based on the bestselling Stephen King novel. In the movie, Carrie White is a shy high schooler who has her first period at the age of 17, and is ruthlessly mocked about it by her peers when she doesn’t understand what’s happening. At home, her Catholic mother learns of what's happened and demonizes it, as her radical faith has made her believe that periods are the sign of a woman’s impurities and loss of sexual innocence. Carrie's mother is incredibly abusive, shaming her for sexual actions that never occurred, and even locks Carrie in her closet for several days on end. 

As the movie progresses, however, Carrie develops telekinetic powers. After the horrific abuse from her mother and a prank dumping literal pig’s blood on her as she is jokingly named prom queen, she goes psychotic, killing her abusers and going on a vengeful rampage throughout the entire city. This film (and the book it is adapted from) perfectly exemplify the complex nature of women's representation in horror media. Empowered female characters are contrasted with horrific crimes against female characters, along with monstrous feminine imagery. This ultimately displays anatomy in a dangerous and horrific light, creating the aptly named 'Monstrous Feminine.' Tying Carrie's psychic abilities and rampage to her puberty, portrays puberty and the female anatomy in a concerning light—even if Carrie herself is an empowered character because of her abilities.

"Aliens" is a 1986 sequel to the horror classic "Alien," starring Sigourney Weaver as Ripley and directed by James Cameron. In the movie, the reproductive cycle of the titular aliens, known as Xenomorphs, is fleshed out in a gruesome manner. An Alien Queen lays eggs that, when disturbed, attach themselves to the faces of bystanders and implant themselves inside the host. The host's DNA is incorporated into the implanted alien, growing the tumor from the host's body until it bursts out and later molts to become a Xenomorph, the ultimate killing machine. This process corrupts the natural reproductive cycle of humans and, in Cameron's own words, serves as a "monstrous analogue to Ripley's own maternal role in the film." 

The "Exorcist," a 1973 film directed by William Friedkin, features a twelve-year-old girl possessed by a demon that must be removed by two priests. The once innocent young girl is morphed into a demonic, sexual monster, and embodies all of what is traditionally seen as sin in Christian culture. Dr. Julia Elliott, a professor of women and gender studies here at the UofSC, commented that all of these movies were created during the second wave of feminism in America. 

“The second wave of feminism was sweeping the nation at this time, which came with more rights and sexual empowerment for women. In response, these movies portrayed female sexuality and biology as grotesque and dangerous,” Dr. Elliott says. These movies, intentionally or unintentionally, work to demonize the sexual empowerment of women, and present that empowerment as dangerous to the status quo. This age of horror cemented harmful stereotypes about women, and seeing men in these roles was a rare occurrence until the twenty-first century.

Slasher films, such as "Halloween," released in 1978, "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," released in 1974, and "Scream," released in 1996, show many other flaws with women's portrayal in horror at that time. These films featured masked men who murdered primarily women, often in brutal and torturous ways. Often these female victims were sexually promiscuous or sexually taboo, and death from the murderer was seen as a sick sense of revenge for their supposed sin. And even though many of these movies featured a strong woman who killed the murderer in the end, they were often seen as sexually innocent, pure or simply tomboyish in nature. 

This creates a complicated portrayal of women, where a women is only strong if they fit a very narrow sense of what a woman can or should be. The masked nature of these villains also mirrors the silent crimes that women faced during this period and still face today. We live in a world where women are afraid to speak up against 'invisible' killers and are constantly treated like crimes against them are their fault because they 'shouldn't have worn that dress' or 'they should have known what would happen to them.' 

Recent movies, however, have made a push to rectify women's portrayal in film and rebrand this ‘monstrous feminine,’ as many female directors are now using this trope in order to push women’s issues and further women's progress.

“There has been an explosion of sorts in the film industry with women directors and the ‘monstrous feminine.’ These directors are creating self-consciously feminine films that are sympathetic to the woman’s plight, and use this trope to showcase that plight,” says Dr. Elliott. 

One of the best examples of this is the 2014 movie "Babadook" directed by Jennifer Kent. In the movie, the monster known as The Babadook manifests itself as a symbol of a single mother's grief and anxiety. The female lead has sexual agency over herself but is not sexualized, and the movie discusses taboo subjects related to motherhood, such as anger or frustration with your child. The movie also never tries to imply that it is the mother's fault for the monster or the haunting that happens to her and her son. This film turns the ‘monstrous feminine’ trope on its head, and uses it to showcase women’s issues instead of demonizing women’s bodies.

"Titane" is a revolutionary and innovative movie made in 2021 and directed by Julia Ducournau. It shows a woman, Alexia, a serial killer who falls in love with and has sex with a car. It’s a movie that Dr. Julia Elliott states, “exploded the idea of the nuclear family and of sexuality in general.” It’s a deeply provocative film about gender, sexuality and trauma, and uses body horror and a spin on the ‘monstrous feminine’ to talk about these issues. "Raw," a 2016 film also directed by Julia Ducornau, is a coming-of-age story using the visceral horror and monstrous nature of cannibalism. "Jennifer's Body," a 2009 film directed by Karyn Kusama, satirizes the demon girl trope and pokes holes in its messaging. "The Witch," a 2016 film directed by Robert Eggers, showcases the liberation of a woman through witchcraft. 

None of these films portray violence against women in a positive light, or claim that the women deserved it for acting in a taboo way. They treat violence on women like a crime, and the women are treated as victims that need help. On top of that, these films work to deconstruct the ‘monstrous feminine’ and actually use it to showcase woman empowerment. These movies deserve to be lifted up for their feminist messages. 

Dr. Julia Elliott teaches a course at the UofSC’s Honor College called “Monstrous Mothers, Diabolical Daughters, and Femme Fatales: Gender and Monstrosity in Horror Films.” This course delves much deeper into the way second-wave feminism was treated by male directors at the time, the way they pushed to demonize woman’s biology and sexual freedom, and the way female directors are taking that power back. The Columbia State Museum also hosts film screenings of several of the movies listed here, including "Titane."

Films like these and seminars led Dr. Elliott work to uplift the feminist voice and take back the power that male directors have had over the feminine portrayal in horror. As such, it is incredibly important to support these films and professors, like Dr. Elliott, because they are fighting an uphill battle to change the way the media sees women.

It is important that society sees a woman's body for what it is. It is not monstrous, and it is not dangerous. It is not something to be feared, hated or oppressed. A woman’s body is hers, and she is free to do with it what she pleases, and there will never be anything scary about that.