Bitchin': How The Horror Genre Empowers Women - Part II

Gimmie some sugar, baby... Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby in Pet Sematary.

I believe the strongest theme we find in films that showcase women is love. Women are constantly portrayed as needing love, wanting love, and being loved in most traditional films. We find these same themes in horror, but they tend to twist things a bit. They also showcase a woman's choices when it comes to love, whether or not they're positive or negative. I think we miss a lot of true love stories when they are packaged as horror because we get too wrapped up in the horror aspects of the narrative. I like to look past the packaging, however, and I find we can really get to some strong roots of how women deal with love, especially in life or death situations.

NOTE: It should come as no surprise, but this blog post does have spoilers, though I do my best not to give away the ending of the films or books.

I think one of the best horror stories out there that deals with a woman and her unconditional love for her partner is The Fly. Even my own mother agrees with me on this one--she's the one who pointed it out to me! This might seem strange, but hear me out.

Love in a time of science. Patricia Owens and David Hedison in The Fly (1958).
First, we have two versions of the film The Fly. The first film was made in 1958 and stars David Hedison, Patricia Owens, and one of the true masters of horror, Vincent Price. It is based nearly exactly off of the short story "The Fly" by George Langelaan, first published in Playboy in 1957. If you haven't read it, check it out here, and then be sure to watch the original film. Even though the revelation of Dr. Delambre as half man, half fly is cheesy by today's standards, think of how audiences would've reacted in the 1950s (my mother said she was terrified!). The outstanding performances of the cast create realistic characters and give a lot of heart to the film. Give it a chance and see it for the intellectual film it actually is.

Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum in The Fly (1986). They were lovers in real life during this film
and were married in November of the following year.
Now most of us are more familiar with the second version of The Fly from 1986. Starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, and John Getz, this film is still considered one of David Cronenberg's masterpieces. The transformation of Goldblum from Seth Brundle into the "Brundlefly" builds from being uncomfortable and disturbing to shocking and terrifying. And who else can forget the birth of the maggot? (That was Cronenberg playing the doctor, by the way.) The practical effects still stand up today, keeping The Fly firmly in top positions of horror film quality.

But what's truly impressive about both of these films are Mrs. Delambre and Veronica "Ronnie" Quaife and their reactions to their lovers. Both women immediately want to help their counterparts. They love who the man is and do not fault him for the monster he becomes. We can marvel at Mrs. Delambre in how her love is completely unwavering; while she shows initial fear at her husband's transformation, her immediate reaction afterwards is to help, to figure out how to save him. Ronnie, in contrast, goes through a period of self-doubt and fear, but this would not be considered an abnormal reaction if, say, Seth had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She comes back around to his needs in the end, which only strengthens the story and her love.

Both women also make the ultimate sacrifice: they agree with their lover to give him absolute relief to his suffering. It is heartbreaking and difficult for them, but they know that the loss of the man they loved is complete, and that he truly needs release. In my mind, this is not only admirable and heartbreaking, but it is the very symbol of how powerful a woman can be in her choices to help the person she loves most.

While I could certainly keep going when it comes to women and love in horror films, I do want to get to another type of unconditional love. So here are some more horror films that deal with women in love and how she can find power in it to make her own choices.

Bram Stoker's Dracula - Quite possibly the quintessential Gothic romance, this film follows Stoker's novel quite closely and is a real tribute to love in the horror genre.

Crimson Peak - A modern Gothic tale by Guillermo del Toro, this film features a complex love story amidst ghosts and a disturbing twist at the end.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - This film gets looked over quite a bit as it is a bit dramatic and is an odd turn for Robert De Niro, but it does follow Shelley's novel in most aspects. And a lot of people don't realize the strength of the love story that is intertwined in this Gothic tale.

Hellraiser - Making the ultimate sacrifice in both romantic and familial love, Clive Barker stuck close to his novel The Hellbound Heart when he made this frightening classic that has love at its core.

Red, White and Blue - While I haven't seen this one myself, critics and viewers point out that at it's heart it's a love story amidst tragedy and horror, so I think it fits the theme of this blog post.

The Shape of Water - Guillermo del Toro created a beautiful love story that stems from the actions of the Gillman in the monster classic Creature From the Black Lagoon, which can be considered somewhat of a love story as well. The Shape of Water is by far my favorite film of 2017 and one of the best horror films of this decade.

White Lies Beneath - A fantastic thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfieffer, this creepy twist ending stays with you for quite a while.


Women have one thing that men can never have: a uterus. Therefore, we're the ones who can birth babies. And it's totally a natural thing for women to do, and for women to want to do. Obvious, right?

Well, not really. Motherhood isn't for everyone, and it comes with its own horrifying aspects. We have social assumptions that every woman wants to have a baby, and every mother loves her child unconditionally. Yet every day, we can turn on the news and see mothers abandoning, torturing, even killing their own children, the most horrifying of late being the Turpin family in California. If babies are so wanted and love is so unconditional, why is it that these shocking atrocities continue to happen?

I think the horror genre is the place where we can explore that. We can explore the social desires versus a woman's personal desires, or her own feelings about her own child. How far will a woman go to protect her child, or how far will she go to stop him/her from evil deeds?

One of my favorite horror moms is Mrs. Voorhees. It's important to note that in the first Friday the 13th film, Jason never actually kills anyone. It's his mother who has been punishing the kids for their atrocities against her son. It is pretty horrible that the poor kid drowned because camp counselors were literally screwing around and not paying attention. But can we forgive Mrs. Voorhees for her acts? Can we sympathize with a woman wanting revenge for her child? Would a mother go to such lengths?

Tilda Swinton as Eva, and the different boys who played Kevin:
Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell, and Ezra Miller (from youngest to oldest).
Then we have the exact opposite in We Need to Talk About Kevin (novel by Lionel Schriver, film by Lynne Ramsay). In both the novel and the book, mother Eva knows there's something wrong with her son, Kevin. It is even evident when she's pregnant; she just senses the child growing inside her isn't right. As he grows, he is the dutiful and caring son to his father, but is callous and vicious to his mother. Even when Eva tries to get help, her husband doesn't want her to as he doesn't see that anything's wrong. And their lack of getting help for the child leads to a horrible disaster that could've been prevented, if not for Eva's self-doubt and inability to act, based on societal norms that she thinks she needs to cling to.

Blanche Baker as Ruth Chandler, the film version of Gertrude Baniszewski,
with the cast of children.
The Girl Next Door is a well known and beloved novel by Jack Ketchum, and it was made into a film in 2007. The novel and film are based on the horrific crime committed by Gertrude Baniszewski, a mother who orchestrated the torture and death of Sylvia Likens. From Wikipedia:

The murder of Sylvia Likens took place in Indianapolis, Indiana, United States in October 1965. The 16-year-old Likens was held captive, abused and tortured to death over three months by Gertrude Baniszewski, Baniszewski's children, and other neighborhood children. Likens' parents, who were carnival workers, had initially left her and her sister, Jenny, in the care of the Baniszewski family, paying Gertrude $20 a week to care for the sisters.

Baniszewski, her daughter Paula, her son John, and two neighborhood youths, Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs, were tried and convicted of torturing and murdering Likens. The case was described by the prosecutor in Baniszewski's trial as "the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana".

Even worse, Baniszewski denied all involvement in directing the children to torture the girl and her own actions, claiming she was insane. She said she was "too distracted" by illnesses and depression to have had any control over the children. Clearly, her testimony was disregarded because of the overwhelming evidence against her. She died from lung cancer five years after she was let out on parole after serving only 14 years of a life sentence.

Baniszewski used her power as a mother to dominate and control a group of children. She took her role as nurturer and guardian and turned it on its head. The children said fear of retaliation kept them from going to the police. When the did confess to a neighbor, the neighbors thought they were making it up since Baniszewski posed as the model mother and caretaker to the outside world. This is true manipulation at its finest, using her power as a mother to control others in the most terrifying of ways.

In all three of these examples, we see mothers that seem to have gone beyond the social norms of expectation. Just because a mother loves her child doesn't mean she is going to do right by societal standards. A mother may choose to take revenge, may choose not to get help when it is most dire to get it, or may use her own family as tools to use for her sadistic whims. A mother isn't always the loving martyr we want her to be...which I believe can be the scariest part of all.

Essie Davis as Amelia, Noah Wiseman as her son, Samuel,
and Barbara West as the neighbor Mrs. Roach. And a floofy doggie.
My personal favorite mother horror film is The Babadook. I saw a lot of comments and criticism of this film, and mostly it was that the movie wasn't scary. However, I believe the viewers weren't digging deep enough. The Babadook explores a woman's tragedy so traumatizing to her that she blames her son for it. Her care toward him is loving, but only in that she's merely trying to go through the motions of what she believes a mother should be. She seems apathetic toward him, and he comes off as an annoying nuisance. But through her exploration of the Babadook monster, she comes to a threshold where she finds that her love for her son is real, and she comes to an uneasy peace in her situation. It seems to be the best she can do, and the family does seem to be healed by it.

There are other really strong themes in films that showcase mothers; I only wish I had the time to talk about all of them. But the above films to me are some of the most important in how women are portrayed as mothers in the horror genre. I encourage folks to explore more themes in this list:

Antichrist - Though I found the middle of this film boring, the story overall is very powerful as to the agony, guilt and despair of the parents on the loss of their child, and the ending is truly shocking.

Black Swan - The mother/daughter relationship here seems perfect, but soon turns quite unhealthy and obsessive, leading to a very dark ending.

Before I Wake - While I found this film a bit predictable, it was a very tender look at love and loss and opening your heart to new love again.

The Exorcist - The desperation of a mother leads her to find hope in men of the cloth through unconventional means.

The Eyes of My Mother - While I haven't watched this film yet, the story line and praise tell me that this is a study of the power of a mother over her child.

Grace - A small horror film that fell under the radar, I highly recommend this study of the undying love of a mother, even when there is something seriously wrong with the baby.

Goodnight, Mommy - With an unexpected twist ending, this film explores tragedy in a small family.

Mother! - A gorgeous film that has a specific meaning that the director intended, but there are plenty of other interpretations one can make about women, marriage and motherhood.

The Omen - Though it's Dad who is the main character, Mom still has an important part to play, as does the governess. Truly strong female performances centered around a dangerous young boy.

Rosemary's Baby - Both the novel and the book are a shocking look at societal pressures on expecting mothers...and the horrifying consequences.

The Sixth Sense - Though a secondary role, Toni Collette as Cole's mom is one of the most flawed and amazing mothers ever to show up in a horror film. I just love her performance.

Coming up next: my final post for Women in Horror Month covers a specific, woman-dominated film based off a video game, of all things! I also talk about two characters that I believe are the epitome of the strength of women in the horror genre.


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