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The evolution of women in horror films

Caroline Madden, ‘Doah Staff Writer
April 24, 2013

'Doah photo courtesy of wikimedia commons Women have had a role in horror films since the early 1900s. While some of their  roles have evolved into more than a damsel in distress, others are still no different than Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho or the first Dracula.

‘Doah photo courtesy of wikimedia commons
Women have had a role in horror films since the early 1900s. While some of their roles have evolved into more than a damsel in distress, others are still no different than Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho or the first Dracula.

The genre of horror films first began in the early 1900s. Famous monster films such as “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” all have a young woman as the object of the creature’s desire — a beauty that seduces and captivates them.

The women become damsels in distress, in need of a male hero to save them from the evil clutches of the monster. The character of Carl Denham summed it up best in “King Kong” when he said, “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

Horror took a turn in the early 1960s with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” It was considered very controversial at the time for showing the female character Marion in bed with her lover. It was basically unheard of to show an unmarried couple in the same bed. It has also become a landmark film for its famous shower scene. “Psycho” began the trend of female nudity in in horror films, and of punishing women for having sex.

The 1970s and 1980s were hugely popular for horror, beginning with “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” All of these movies share the film convention of girls having sex and then being killed, along with the concept of the final girl. The final girl is the last one standing, and either escapes or kills the killer. Most final girls share certain characteristics — they are usually virgins that avoid the vices of the other victims, such as drugs or sex. One of the most famous and enduring final girls is Laurie Strode from “Halloween,” played by Jamie Lee Curtis in four of the franchise’s films.

The trope of the final girl has become a huge plot device in modern horror. While it is great to see women hold their own against a killer, they are still held on a pedestal for being virgins while women who have sex are killed.

The famous 1990s movie “Scream” lampooned the genre, taking the conventions of these films and mocking them. The characters in the film even go so far as to directly address the “rules” of being caught in a horror movie, “Number one: you can never have sex. BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs.” However, their heroine and requisite final girl Sidney Prescott does have sex and ends up surviving, turning the convention on its head.

It is great to see that women in some contemporary horror films have turned from damsels in distress to the heroine of the story. And, movies today are continuing to abandon the conventions of old. The new “Evil Dead” pushed back against the pure, virginal final girl trope by having the heroine be a former drug-addict with a troubled past.

While women have evolved in horror films from being helpless to becoming the heroine, in most horror films they are still divided in two categories: the sexually promiscuous who will die and the virginal heroine that survives. It is refreshing to see movies do away with this convention, and hopefully women’s roles in horror will follow the trend that more forward-thinking filmmakers have already started with more dynamic female characters.

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