Up until the 1960’s, horror was universally known as the film genre where a strong male hero fights off a monster chasing down a helpless woman. Female characters were typically the supporting roles — a damsel in distress/love interest (think Ann Darrow in King Kong or Ellen Hutter in Nosferatu) that was there to take punishment and incite sympathy and suspense from the audience. The lead male character or evil villain was most often the star, until horror exploded in the 1970’s and 80’s and presented women taking on more lead roles and female characters that could carry a movie on their own, without the help of a male counterpart.
Horror went from being a genre of women sick and tired of being pushed around and victimized, into being a genre where women can be the ones with all the power, physical or magical, good or bad. While some heroines have been softer spoken or more shy than others, some have been more fearless and aggressive than others; the image of women in horror quickly evolved to showcase their characters just as smart, resilient and strong as any man who came before them. Here’s a look at some of the most prominent female characters in the world of horror who won our hearts in their own memorable ways.
Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween, Halloween 2, Halloween H20, and Halloween (2018)
Laurie Strode is the bookworm-turned-badass who proved you don’t have to be built like Angelina Jolie or Milla Jovovich to beat the bad guy. Halloween is credited as having sparked the entire “slasher” sub-genre and made Jamie Lee Curtis a star; and Michael Myers is regarded as one of the most infamous and scary killers of all time. Behind his white mask, slow walking and vacant demeanor, Myers is a force of nature and always manages to be everywhere and nowhere at once. What makes a nerdy bookworm like Laurie Strode so hard for him to kill? She has a flawless ability to improvise in any situation. Her high intellect allows her to consistently think fast, move fast and fight back fast.
In a classic suspenseful scene from the first Halloween, Strode locks herself in a closet and corners herself into what seems like her inevitable doom as Myers breaks through the door. She sees a coat hanger and quickly fashions that into a stabbing weapon, strikes Myers in the eye with it, then uses his own knife to stab him and escape. When he catches her again and starts choking her to death, she quickly thinks to rip his mask off, causing him to let go of her to put his mask back on.
The 2018 Halloween sequel is very important because it shows us something rare most other horror films never do, and that is what happens to a victim long after she escapes her nightmare? What are the repercussions and long-term psychological effects of surviving a trauma so devastating? Laurie Strode is still human after all, and she deals with depression, alcoholism, divorce, mental hospitals, child protection agencies taking her children away, and living in constant fear and paranoia of her personal monster coming back to finish her off. Halloween (2018) is so unique in that it came out during the peak of the #MeToo movement and was celebrated as being a representation of three generations of women (Laurie, her daughter Karen and granddaughter Allyson) banding together to defeat a ruthless male monster that has been terrorizing their family for decades, finally putting him to rest (so we think).
Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in Scream, Scream 2, Scream 3, and Scream 4
If there is a more iconic scary movie from the 1990’s than Scream, I’ve never heard of it. Directed by the horror legend Wes Craven, Scream tells the story of a teenage girl named Sidney (Campbell) who is stalked and harassed by a mysterious killer sporting a Ghostface mask. She receives menacing phone calls asking her “What’s your favorite scary movie?” and everyone around her is picked off one by one through four films. The Scream films are unique because the main characters are fully aware they are in a horror movie and that helps them play by the rules to survive.
What makes Sidney Prescott so fierce is her ability to think how her killer thinks. In Scream 2, Sidney figures out that the killer is repeating the murders from the first film by killing people in order of the same names of the victims from the original film. She carries a gun, has proven herself able to brawl in hand to hand combat, and her killers wisely respect that she is a very tough cookie and are forced to re-think their strategies before attacking her. She is not the type of victim Ghostface can just jump in the parking lot. At the end of Scream 2, Sidney defeats her killer and looks over their lifeless body with her friends Cotton and Gale, then shoots the killer in the forehead and says, “just in case.”
By the time we get to Scream 4, Sidney is so on top of her game that she doesn’t even seem to fear whoever the killer is. She has beaten so many of them through the first three films that it’s almost just an exercise for her. The killer understands that they are in her home-court and she has the advantage. At the end of Scream 4 when Sidney takes out the killer who wanted to dethrone her and become the new Scream Queen for the 2010’s, Sidney reminds them, “You forgot the first rule of remakes!”
Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) in A Nightmare on Elm Street, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
Another Scream Queen created by the great late Wes Craven, Nancy Thompson is the straightedge, cookie-cutter “good girl” that looks like a character taken straight out of Leave it to Beaver. Nancy lives on Elm Street, the place where Freddy Krueger slaughters kids in their sleep as payback for their parents burning him alive years ago. Freddy Krueger used to be a child killer who murdered over twenty kids in the Springwood neighborhood. When he was finally caught, someone somewhere forgot to sign a warrant and he was freed on a technicality. The parents of Springwood, refusing to accept that outcome, took the law into their own hands and trapped Krueger in his boiler room and burned him alive. He now comes back to kill the remaining kids of Elm Street in their dreams where their parents cannot protect them, and if you die in your dream, you die for real.
Nancy figures out that Freddy can be killed if she can bring him into the real world. She spends a night boobytrapping her house with weapons and explosives, then puts herself to sleep and hunts Freddy. She brings him into the real world and tells him, “I take back every bit of energy I gave you. You’re nothing. You’re s***.” Which causes him to fade away and disappear, being the metaphor that inner demons can only survive and harm you if you let them. Stop giving your monsters your time and energy and you take away their power.
In A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Nancy Thompson comes back to Springwood as a shrink to help the last of the “Elm Street children” who have been institutionalized in a mental ward, all claiming to be terrorized in their dreams by Freddy. Nancy assures the children Freddy can be defeated, and teaches the kids that while yes, Freddy can shape-shift and bend reality in the dreamworld, so can they! In her efforts to protect the other children Nancy does get killed, but she takes Freddy out with her. Rest in peace, Queen.
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, and Alien Resurrection
Alien is a film about a crew on board a spaceship that discovers a rescue beacon from a different ship, sets coordinates to intercept it, and inadvertently let loose a killer alien on their ship that picks them off one at a time. The vicious alien comes equipped with razor sharp teeth, a tongue that acts more like a second mouth with its own set of teeth, and acid for blood, making it quite the predator. This entire movie would not even exist had the crew obeyed Ripley’s orders and not let the contaminated crew members back on their ship after they had a run in with the first alien creature, but as we know in most horror films, no one ever listens to the smart lady. I bet they wish they had now…except they’re all dead…except Ripley…because she’s the smart lady.
What makes Ripley and her situation stand out is that Alien took away the “Haunted House” element of horror films. Usually if someone is being terrorized by a ghost or killer, they can just leave the house, but in outer space there is nowhere to go. Ripley beats the aliens over and over again throughout the franchise because she always applies logic, goes with her brain over her gut, keeps her cool under extreme pressure, and goes her own way even if no one else wants to follow. At the end of Alien 3, Ripley gets impregnated with an alien creature inside her and selflessly burns herself alive for the sake of humanity. Warrior, hunter, martyr, Ellen Ripley is just a good old fashioned badass.
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Out of all the women mentioned above, Sarah Connor is arguably the alpha. She started off as they all did, living an otherwise normal, mundane life and being thrown into a lion’s den against vicious monsters and killers and came out on top. Terminator stars Linda Hamilton as a woman being hunted by a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), which is a killer robot from the future sent back in time to kill Connor since she will someday birth the human offspring, John Connor, who will lead the rebellion against killer artificial intelligence and save the world. The human resistance sends back one of their own to protect Sarah Connor and the rest is movie history. The entire Terminator franchise gave us some of the most memorable one-liners of all time such as “Come with me if you want to live,” “I’ll be back,” “You’re terminated”, and “Hasta la vista, baby!”
Whereas Laurie, Sidney, Nancy and Ripley all did their best to avoid future horrors in their lives, Sarah Connor took them head on and dedicated the rest of her life to stopping future terminators from destroying the world. She attempted to assassinate Miles Dyson, lead engineer at Cyberdyne Systems responsible for creating the artificial intelligence system known as Skynet. She refused to give up her son John even after a terminator threatened to shove a spike through her face if she didn’t reveal his location, and she paved the way for the human resistance to fight back against the entire Skynet army.
Sarah Connor has the book-smart brain power and ingenuity skills of a Laurie Strode, the “fight” of a Sidney Prescott, the fearlessness and selflessness of a Nancy Thompson, and the street smarts and hunter mentality of an Ellen Ripley. Mix that in with experienced combat skills, a vast knowledge of military and chemical weapons, assassin-like stealth, and you’ve got Sarah Connor.
Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) in Friday the 13th
The only female killer who makes the cut (pun intended), Pamela Voorhees is known to horror fans as the mother of Jason Voorhees — the hockey masked, machete wielding maniac who drowned at Camp Crystal Lake as a child and came back years later to kill anyone who dares to return to the summer camp. Pamela introduced herself as the killer in the original Friday the 13th film and pulled the rug out from critics and audience members alike as the first prominent female killer in a slasher film. She returned to the camp to murder counselors who were busy having sex when they should have been lifeguarding the children at the lake.
Pamela Voorhees understood that most people around her at the time, including the police, thought of women as either airhead sex toys or quiet, weak homemakers, and used those misogynistic ideas against her victims (and the audience) to allow herself to stealthily move around the camp. The film was shot with some of the murders being carried out through the killer’s point-of-view; we see hands holding weapons with gloves on and just assume the villain is a man, so when Pamela Voorhees reveals herself as the killer, it is a shock to everyone on both sides of the screen. Even after she is killed, her spirit lives on in her son and motivates him through almost a dozen sequels and remakes to finish off anyone who returns to the camp. She truly does prove there is nothing more precious than a mother’s love.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of more memorable female characters in the world of horror, thriller, mystery and suspense that deserve recognition for owning the genre, breaking down doors, and leaving their mark on some level, regardless if they were a hero or a villain. Some that come to mind include:
Wendy Torrance (Shelly DuVall) in The Shining
Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in Misery
Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey) in Black Christmas
Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) in Audition
Selena (Naomi Harris) in 28 Days Later
Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) in Scream
Casey Becker (Drew Berrymore) in Scream
Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) in Rosemary’s Baby
Selene (Kate Beckinsale) in Underworld
Alice Marcus (Milla Jovovich) in Resident Evil
Jaimie Height (Maika Monroe) in It Follows
Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) in Basic Instinct
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) in Stoker
T-X (Kristanna Loken) in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines — (first female Terminator!)
Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) in The Mummy and The Mummy Returns
Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs
Annie Graham (Toni Collette) in Hereditary
Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Erin (Jessica Biel) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
Chrissie (Jordana Brewster) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) in The Others
Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) in The Village
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Psycho
Judy Barton (Kim Novak) in Vertigo
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) in The Birds
Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) in Rear Window
Nola Caveth (Samantha Eggar) in The Brood
Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in Prometheus
Ofelia/Princess Moanna (Ivana Baquero) in Pan’s Labyrinth
Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) in The VVitch
Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) in The Exorcist
Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) in The Exorcist
Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) in Jennifer’s Body
Erin (Sharni Vinson) in You’re Next
Adelaide Wilson/Red (Lupita Nyong’o) in Us
Holly Jones (Melissa Leo) in Prisoners
Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt) in I Know What You Did Last Summer
Maureen Epps (Julianna Margulies) in Ghost Ship
Tiffany Valentine (Jennifer Tilly) in Bride of Chucky
Sarah and Juno (Shauna Macdonald and Natalie Mendoza) in The Descent
Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) in Carrie
Mrs. Mott (Rebecca DeMornay) in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle
Paris Nevada (Amanda Peet) in Identity
Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) in Aliens
Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) in The Mist
Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) in The Fly
Elizabeth Wells (Logan Browning) in The Perfection
Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) in The Perfection
Susanna Bannion/Mother Suspiriorum (Dakota Johnson) in Suspiria
Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) in Suspiria
Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) in Hard Candy
Alexandria Forrest (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) in Candyman
Danielle Bowden (Juliette Lewis) in Cape Fear
Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) in Wait Until Dark
Ana Clark (Sarah Polley) in Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Allie Jones (Bridget Fonda) in Single White Female
Lady Mary Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson) in Sleepy Hollow
Sue Ann “Ma” Ellington (Octavia Spencer) in Ma
Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox) in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 & 5
Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) in The Ring
Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) in Saw, Saw 2, and Saw 3
Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) in Child’s Play
Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in The Grudge
Angela Baker (Felissa Rose) in Sleepaway Camp
Lorraine Warren (Vera Famiga) in The Conjuring
Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects
Sarah, Nancy, Bonnie and Rochelle (Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell and Rachel True) in The Craft
Just to name a few…
It is easy to see that horror is clearly a feminist genre. For every action film in the 80’s and 90’s that starred Sylvester Stallone or Jean-Claude Van Damme, horror matched it with a movie starring Sigourney Weaver or Neve Campbell. Some of the most iconic female characters in horror also helped spark the ideas of successful, female-dominated horror television series’ such as Charmed, Scream Queens, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and American Horror Story. The success of having strong female leads in horror for decades even inspired writers in the fantasy, action and science-fiction genres to create more iconic female characters, think Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, or Hermione Granger in Harry Potter.
If we all lived in the world of modern-day horror, women would make a fortune if they started a “Scream Queen for hire” protection business. Sarah Connor would be garnishing my paychecks for the rest of my life, and “Come with me if you want to live,” would be replaced with “Hire me if you want to live.” This Halloween let us all raise a glass to our Scream Queens and give our respects to the countless number of female heroines and killers who help make horror the best movie genre ever! Happy Halloween, Queens!
About the Author:
Brian Moniz is from San Jose, Calif. He studied filmmaking and writing at San Jose State University from 2010–2013 and got his bachelor’s degree in Radio-TV-Film. Throughout his high school and college years, he worked as a music and movie journalist and critic. Having only recently come out of the closet himself in 2014, Brian enjoys writing about LGBTQ issues. His only regret when it comes to his sexuality is that he didn’t come out sooner.