a podcast about women in horror

What does it mean when the women of horror stories are the last ones standing?

Horror has historically been used as a medium for depicting our society’s greatest fears, as well as our greatest strengths. A new generation of horror films and television shows feature women that no longer wait around for the male lead to save the day, but tackle the monsters themselves, head on.

Next weekend, Julia Decourneau’s debut film Raw will be screened at Toronto’s The Royal Cinema. The film utilizes the horror genre to examine the protagonist Justine as she develops her agency and sexuality through – wait for it – cannibalism. The film is apparently so gory that an ambulance had to be called to its premiere at TIFF last year, as some people in the audience were fainting from the scenes in which Justine submits to her flesh-eating desires.

Most horror films end after the protagonist takes one for the team and does the ugly work of confronting and killing the monster, villain, demon, etc. And as you might have guessed, most of those protagonists happen to be men, while women are relegated to the roles of damsel in distress or disposable scream queen (who just so happens to be wearing a bikini all the time).

Justine, however, is one of many emerging women who aren’t afraid to get a little blood on their hands.

Riverdale is the latest teen drama to have audiences buzzing. Yes, it can be cheesy and the drama is sometimes unwarranted, typical for a CW series. But there is one character whose uneasiness has viewers hooked.

In the popular comic books that inspired the series, Betty Cooper was an all-American girl with a heart of gold. On screen, however, that image went out the window. It’s become clear within the past few episodes that Betty could well be capable of being Jason Blossom’s killer. Betty’s anger toward Jason makes her a prime suspect in the murder, which she herself is investigating.

As tensions rise, it is riveting to watch Betty lose her grip on her nice-girl image and succumb to her yearning for revenge. Though all the details have not been revealed yet, Betty’s motivation for Jason’s murder would be understandable. Her intense need to protect her sister Polly and keep her family together is what elevates Betty’s character from simply Jughead’s partner in crime to a calculated lone wolf. 

Another recent example is Thomasin from Robert Eggers’ The VVitch. At the end of this terrifying film, Thomasin gives into the darkness once and for all and joins the witches in the forest behind her family’s home. It is refreshing to see women reject the supposedly inherent good nature that they are usually confined to. While some viewers may have felt like Thomasin was making the wrong choice by signing her soul away to the devil (wrong is a bit of an understatement), it was nevertheless satisfying to watch her go about it because it was a choice all her own.

M. Night Shamalayn’s latest blockbuster, Split, was also driven by a girl determined to survive. Casey (who also plays Thomasin in The VVitch) outsmarts her captor, Kevin, and all of his 27 personalities. In the end, she fires a shotgun to “the beast,” one of Kevin’s more dangerous identities. It doesn’t kill him, but he lets her escape anyway when he realizes she’s had a troubled past. It is not shown whether Casey went back to live with her abusive uncle, but seeing as she managed to survive the abduction, it’s clear that she will be just fine on her own if that is the route she decided to take.

While this recent rise in horror heroines is exciting, it is also important to recognize the trailblazers. Ellen Ripley, from Ridley Scott’s Alien was one of the first woman protagonists in a science fiction film, a genre where women are usually reserved for secondary roles. Click through the timeline below to see more iconic roles that paved the way for women in horror today.

It is empowering for women to see characters they can relate to succeed. Although horror and science fiction often depart from reality, the stories they tell are rooted in real-life people and situations. To keep this positive momentum going, the heroines we see in these genres must continue to diversify and reflect the heroines of real life.

Check out more next-generation horror heroines: 

And possibly the cast of Sofia Coppola's new film, The Beguiled! From the looks of it, we can expect to add at the least Nicole Kidman's character to this list.