Horror is a genre notorious for its excessive use of sex and nudity, as well as its frequent disregard for its female characters. Sure, we have the final girl trope and through it have gained some of the best and most badass characters in horror history, but who’s to say that badassery can’t also be used in an evil way from time to time? Surely, if a woman is good enough to save the day they can also wreak some havoc on it. We’ve seen how brutal some final girls can be, doing anything they can to survive and sometimes wracking up a body count of their own such is the case in You’re Next. And it’s a known fact that the best part of the final girl circuit is the final showdown between her and the villain, so what keeps films from switching the roles occasionally?
It’s not that female horror villains are completely absent from the genre, it’s just that there’s a severe lack of them. When there is a female villain they’re often starkly different from their male counterparts. For starters, they almost always have a motive or some reason out of their control to explain their antagonistic ways. For example, Annie Wilkes in Misery is undoubtedly scary, but her actions are explained as being due to mental health conditions such as depression and borderline personality disorder. A similar argument can be made for Ginger Fitzgerald from Ginger Snaps who is attacked by a werewolf and thus turns into one herself, causing her to lose all autonomy of her mind and body. It’s strange how films always feel the need to explain female villains’ rampages or to implement sympathy for them, which isn’t the case for male villains, who are allowed to run rampant without any apparent reason.
Sex, Seduction, and Vanity
There’s also something to be said about how often sex, seduction, and looks play a role in female villains and how they lure their victims in. Where male villains typically stalk or hunt their victims, female villains often resort to seducing their victims or simply drawing them in with their beauty.
In Jennifer’s Body, Jennifer is sacrificed and turned into a succubus — a demon who kills through seduction — and she must feed off the souls of boys in order to live and remain youthful. In X, the film pays good care and respect to the adult film industry, resulting in a fairly sex-positive movie. But Pearl — the film’s main villain — uses sex in scary and uncomfortable ways (i.e kidnapping Lorraine, touching a sleeping Maxine without consent, etc…), even going so far as to kill Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) out of jealousy.
Whatever the story may be, sexuality is used so often as a backbone for female villains and at this point just comes off stale. We’ve seen this so many times by now, surely there is more at their disposal than sexuality. It’s very, very rare that a male villain uses sexuality as his tool to lure in victims, so why does it seem to be the only way for women?
Female Villains Done Right
Scream is an excellent example of how to do female villains right — nearly having an even ratio of male and female Ghostfaces. The shock factor isn’t because it’s a woman under the mask, and it doesn’t make Ghostface any less scary for the characters or the audience. Friday The 13th is another example — or at least the first film is. In a franchise known for its excessive nudity, it’s interesting that it all started with a female villain. It’s definitely not a sex-positive movie (or subsequent franchise) but Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) is among the greatest horror villains of all time. She’s eerie and sneaky and her motherly nature tricks the film’s final girl into trusting her. But if you think there’d be a bit of feminism moving forward in the franchise — especially after following such a strong female villain — you’d be wrong. Still, there’s no denying the influence Mrs. Voorhees had on the genre, so they must have done something right.
There does seem to be a bit of a resurgence for female villains in recent years, with Red (US), Rose the Hat (Doctor Sleep), and even Esther (Orphan) making a bold return. All of these characters are chilling in their own right, but unlike previous examples, they don’t have any humanizing reason behind their actions. They’re simply evildoers and it’s what makes them so scary. Red wants to start a revolution where the tethered take the place of their above-ground counterparts, Rose the Hat is the leader of a murderous cult that feeds on the souls of children to stay young, and Esther is a killer without motive who’s scarily good at manipulating people. Each character strongly holds their own and isn’t easily fought, over-shadowed, or sexualized, and yet they’re still some of the scariest villains in the genre. It just goes to show that you can make a good villain without relying on outdated clichés.
The Is Female for Horror Cinema
However, with the new Hellraiser film having a woman step into the role of Pinhead for the very first time, this could very well open the door for even more female villains to step up to the plate. Perhaps we’ll even see more gender-bent classic horror films, after all, having a female Pinhead doesn’t seem to change the fear factor of the character. In fact, doing so has actually breathed new life into the franchise which has long been tired and drawn out. And hey, having a female villain worked for Scream as well, so who’s to say it wouldn’t work for other franchises too? That being said, we deserve some more original female villains rather than regurgitated reboots. Sure, those can be fun, but they can also feel like a cop-out. There’s no lack of new and unique ideas, and unless the story absolutely needs a male villain (such as in Men) why can’t the main villain be a woman? With how few and far between they seem to be, it would surely draw in audiences even if it’s just out of simple curiosity.
All in all, it’s about time horror starts treating its ladies better, whether it be final girls, villains, or side characters. Trade in sex and nudity for better character development, stop having them be accessories to men and give them their long-deserved chance to shine. Women can be scary too, and it’s time they get to prove it.