Why Are Women in Horror Films Victims or Villains?

The subversive horror film Jennifer’s Body, opening tomorrow, is one of fall’s most eagerly awaited movies: both for Megan Fox’s turn as a flesh-eating teenage seductress, and for its famously outspoken writer, Juno scribe Diablo Cody. On her press rounds, Cody has been making the case that horror films -- while traditionally seen as a for-the-boys genre -- actually have substantial feminist leanings.

“When I watched movies like The Goonies and E.T., it was boys having adventures,” Cody told the New York Times. "When I watched Nightmare on Elm Street, it was Nancy beating up Freddy. It was that simple.”

It’s not really that simple. For every horror film starring an ass-kicking female -- and there are many, from Halloween to Scream -- there are half a dozen slasher films that have their most prominent female characters strip down, cower helplessly, then expire in a gush of blood. (Hostel, Saw -- we are looking at you.) The combination of sex and gore is catnip for the lucrative young male filmgoer market, and as producers of recent “torture porn” hits well know, slaying a naked chick is a fast and easy way to make those numbers. Jennifer’s Body will try to flip the formula: The leading lady, instead of being slayed, will do the slaying. But if the film’s main appeal is still a sexy girl splattered with blood, is it really fair to call this feminism?

The fact is, there are plenty of ways to make a feminist horror film. Three that come to mind:

The coming-of-age story
Teenage girls getting their period is the catalyst for classic horror films Carrie and Ginger Snaps. The heroines of these films become psychic killers and werewolves, respectively -- but they still wield all the power, and you’re rooting for them the whole way.

The revenge fantasy
Women often feel disempowered, so getting revenge on the men who’ve wronged us is a potent fantasy. Carrie is a good one, as are the indie hit Teeth, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (one of Diablo Cody’s favorites) and the overlooked low-budget horror film May.

The feminist allegory
American Psycho, directed (not incidentally) by a woman, didn’t have any strong female characters per se -- but it did make a strong statement about society’s objectification of women. Ring had some interesting things to say about women’s power as mothers. And what’s a better condemnation of men’s control over women’s bodies than Rosemary’s Baby?

Whatever their angle, all feminist horror films have one thing in common: They take their female characters seriously. Good or evil, characters like Carrie, May and Ginger aren’t just corpses-in-waiting, but complicated women with wills of their own (even if they use those wills to dismember a few dozen people).

But complex women like these are still the exception, not a rule, in modern horror. As a woman in a horror film, you’re likely to be a lamb for the slaughter -- or alternately, a psychotic axe-wielding killer. And psychotic axe-wielding killers are not empowered; they’re “bad girls” who ultimately deserve punishment. The audience will cheer their death (or un-death) at the end of the film -- and they’re supposed to.

In that sense, Jennifer’s Body is a missed opportunity. Rather than giving us complicated girls in a blood-soaked world, the two lead characters are a classic Good Girl and Bad Girl – a blond and a brunette, a demon and an angel. If any film should be shifting us away from that, it’s one both written and directed by women. Until women in horror movies are allowed to be nuanced characters, Megan Fox’s man-cannibalizing character isn’t empowering -- she’s just another horror movie chick who’s expected to take off her shirt and die.

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