As a genre filled with violence and victimisation, horror has a reputation as a site for sexist exploitation. But a legacy of revered horror movies and brand-new high-quality flicks are shaking the old expectations of horror and redefining it as one of the most feminist genres of film.
Women have always been interested in horror. It’s one of the only genres that refuses to shy away from blood, guts and the full spectrum of human emotion. Horror exposes the horrors women face daily, crossing boundaries of what is considered acceptable to show on screens. Carrie crossed such boundaries in 1976. When Carrie White experiences her first period in the shower in front of her bullying classmates, female moviegoers saw their anxieties and paranoia about menstruation visualised on screen. The bloody finale of Carrie brings that fear that has been simmering throughout to the surface; menstruation has made Carrie an unstable monster, incapable of stemming the flow of her destruction.
Flash forward to 2019 and the release of Midsommar. Ari Aster’s Hereditary has already rocked audiences, and Toni Collette’s brilliant performance as the unfortunate Annie Graham made the usually stomached grief of mothers visceral. Florence Pugh stars as Dani, a survivor of horrific family trauma who is left emotionally neglected by her boyfriend as they travel to Sweden for a once-in-a-lifetime festival. Like Hereditary, Midsommar centres on relationships and grief—especially grief left unvalidated. The fiery climax of Midsommar releases the rage and revenge of Dani. Critics have said that the film’s brutal climax is a cathartic release for Dani, who finally finds emotional validation with the Harga people.
Some film buffs point out that the Final Girl trope is well used throughout the horror genre. A Final Girl is a young woman; typically studious, with girl-next-door good looks, who is of course virginal and the most well-mannered of her friends. She may be like Laurie Strode in Halloween, and choose to stay in and babysit instead of go out with her friends to party. Or maybe she’s like Ellen Ripley in Alien, using her wits to outsmart the big bad Xenomorph. We rarely see these women hold any sexual agency of their own—in fact one of the most widely cited examples of a Final Girl with any sexual autonomy is Sidney Prescott in Scream, which only came out in 1996.
Recent films like The Witch have spun the Final Girl trope into something more appropriate for the 21st Century. Thomasin, the teenage daughter of an exiled family living in colonial New England, is marked as a witch by her family and must suffer their rage in an oppressive society. She is virginal, as signified by her white clothing, and quietly suffers her family’s abuse. She is the typical Final Girl; that is, until the film’s climax. Thomasin enters the woods to make a deal with Satan, sheds her symbolic white garments and finally experiences autonomy for the first time, handing herself over to the Devil to live deliciously.
Why do we see so many Final Girls in horror? Maybe it’s because our society’s expectation of masculine heroism leaves little room for screaming, crying, running—all of the things that make horror movies so entertaining. The stoic hero who seeks out the thing that goes bump in the night usually ends up its victim. Meanwhile, the hysterical woman, through whom the audience can project their fears, anxieties and paranoias, survives.