Bitchin': How the Horror Genre Empowers Women - Part III

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in Stranger Things.

I've talked about women in various types of roles in horror. I also believe there are some very strong, fully realized characters that have had a pivotal influence not only on individual viewers and readers, but on the horror genre itself. First, I want to look at a horror film that pretty much only uses female characters to tell the story, and the characters are varied yet all incredibly important. Second, I'll talk about two of the strongest female characters in the horror genre today, and how they do it just by being themselves.

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 actually rented Silent Hill on a whim when it first came out on video. I hadn't really heard much about it, and I didn't even know it was based off a video game. What I watched truly terrified me. Seriously, Pyramid Head and the Janitor...and the sounds in that film. The grey children freaked me out with those horrible screeches they made. Truly haunting and scary.

The film also really struck a cord with me as far as women in horror are concerned. I realized that the entire main cast save for two characters are women. The women completely carry the story, while the men stand back and are pretty much helpless. Both men don't really have a lot of of dimension, and I believe it's done on purpose, so that we focus on the psychology of the female dynamics in the film.

Laurie Holden as Officer Cybil Bennett and Radha Mitchell as Rose Da Silva.
While I don't want to go through the entire plot and spoil it for any viewers who haven't watched it, I want to at least point out these important pieces.

Rose is the archetypal mother who has lost her child, Sharon, and must go find her. Silent Hill, the world she enters, is far from logical and reliable, so she is given three female figures to serve as guides. First is Cybil, the police officer who is from the same world and who sympathizes with Rose's plight and wants to do what's right. Dahlia is another mother who is part of Silent Hill. She has also lost her child, Alessa. Her madness makes it hard to understand what happened, but Rose is sure that Dahila and Alessa, who looks exactly like Sharon, are the key to finding her. Anna is the final piece, whom Cybil and Rose find attacking Dahlia. Anna leads Cybil and Rose directly to the relative safety of the church, the place that will answer questions and lead Rose to Sharon.

Christabella is the true nemesis of the story. The revelation of what she did to Dahila and Alessa is truly more horrifying than any of the creatures Rose encounters in the town. Alessa gets final revenge on the town once Rose has shown her compassion. She uses Rose to get back to the town that she has been banished from. What she does to the townspeople is dark and gruesome, and we're left wondering if it was really what was right in the end. But in return, Rose is reunited with Sharon and they are able to escape.

Christabella (Alice Krige) experiences Alessa's wrath.
What's fascinating to me is each female character in the film represents a fairly common horror trope. However, they are played against each other to create a new and fascinating story that had an unexpected ending. Not only is Rose a mom, she also has a compassionate heart in the wake of such terrifying circumstances. Cybil, as a female police officer, shows a real strong representation of good cops and how they really do want to help people. Her fate is probably one of the most difficult parts of the film because of how dedicated she has become to Rose and Sharon. Sharon and Alessa are sort of inter-dimensional twins that are a part of each other. We wonder what Sharon will be like after witnessing what Alessa is capable of. Dahlia is left unsaved after everything is said and done. She does not get to go back to Alessa to be a loving mother again. And Christabella is destroyed in the physical place where she has been condemning Dahlia and Alessa, strong symbolism for the power of womanhood.

I think that we can really look at a film like Silent Hill and see that women are empowered to be able to carry a story without the need for male counterparts. It can especially be done without pushing an agenda on the viewer and with leaving the message to speak for itself.

Now let's take a look at two of my favorite ladies of horror:

Don't fuck with a lady with a gun. Ellen Ripley (L) and Dana Scully (R).
Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the central character in the Alien film franchise. In case you've been living under a rock, Ripley started out as just one of the crew on the spaceship the Nostromo when they are sent to check out a distress beacon on planet LV-426 (Alien). Through the course of four films, the Aliens and Ripley become entwined in their interactions with each other, and Ripley proves to be both their ultimate nemesis and their biggest savior. I personally like all of the Alien films. (Yes, even Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection. AND Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.) And really, the reason I like all of them is because of Ripley's story.

Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is the skeptical counterpart to Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) in the hit television series The X-Files. In case that rock is bigger than I realized, Mulder and Scully are two FBI agents assigned to the X-Files, the strange and unusual cases the FBI runs across that can't be explained. Throughout the series, Mulder and Scully uncover secret government conspiracies concerning aliens, meet various monsters, both ones that are physical and ones that are cerebral, and have their own lives affected in many different ways. I was in college when The X-Files was on television, and Scully was a huge influence in my life.

So let's talk about why these ladies are so important. It's not that they're doing anything to stand out as feminists or using their sex to their advantage. The thing is, they're just normal. Both women start out by just trying to do their job. That's it. In fact, we wouldn't even have an Alien franchise if Dallas had listened to Ripley and not brought Kane on board after the facehugger got him. From the very beginning, Ripley was performing her duty as the warrant officer: keeping the ship safe and doing what they were ordered to do. Scully was brought onto the X-Files to make sure Mulder was doing his job correctly. The FBI needed her skepticism to curb his enthusiasm.

The Alien cast, including Jones the cat.
In both stories, Ripley and Scully are equals to their counterparts. It is a widespread rumor that the original Alien script was written as an all-male cast. That's actually not true. There was an explicit note in the script by the writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett that said: "The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women" (from Wikipedia). They were more focused on the alien than they were the characters, so they used last names only in the script. Ridley Scott hired Sigourney Weaver because she was the best actor to play the role; it had nothing to do with her being a woman. So this truly creates equality between the sexes in the film, and is especially true since there are two women who were chosen to play two of the roles, both Ripley and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright).

Scully and Mulder, minus the giant 90s trench coats.
Scully was purposefully created as a woman, but it was to create an equal opposite for Mulder. She was always written to be as strong in personality and capability as Mulder. Her ability to find scientific reasoning and to hold Mulder back from speculating too much complimented Mulder's enthusiasm and desire to rush headlong into a situation without considering the consequences first. She was never less or more than who she was; she was never treated badly for doubting, and she never said "I told you so." All she was trying to do was her job, and do it to the best of her ability.

As their stories progress, both Ripley and Scully come upon challenges that aren't just related to the sci-fi/horror genre itself. For example, both are faced with motherhood, one with dealing with a child that needs help due to trauma, and the other becomes pregnant, and though she wants children, is frightened by the prospect because of the circumstances. Both women have to make difficult choices about the children, too, and while they stay strong in their reasons, they are both devastated by the outcome.

Of course, they both come upon one of the biggest challenges we face as humans: if there's life beyond Earth. In Ripley's case, there most certainly is, and it's horrifying and dangerous. Her instinct is to stand up and fight, and it's also to save Earth. She knows that the Alien species could wipe out humans, so she must stop them at all costs...even if it that cost is her life. Scully learns that the aliens are dangerous in more covert ways, such as leaving behind implants and harvesting human fetuses. She also wants to get to the bottom of the problem to save the people of the world, and she uses her smarts to do it. Scully and Ripley both have to contend with government secrets as well, an added layer that makes them loyal to those around them who see their strengths and follow them because of it.

"Your ass is already on the line. The only question is, what're you gonna do about it?"
~ Ripley, Alien3
One interesting note is the entire film Alien3. Ripley is on a planet where she is literally the only woman, and not only that, but the men around her are all convicted criminals, some quite violent. However, she is able to overcome her being a potential victim and becomes their equal. Not only does she physically become like them (through necessity, not choice), she shows them that her power over this creature and over the men who have been the convicts' enemies will lead them to do something with their lives that has meaning and helps others. These men end up not caring if they die or not. They do suddenly care that they can save Earth, and that gives their lives, as short as they become, purpose.

"[Mulder is] possibly one of the most intense and challenging relationships I may ever have.
And, quite honestly, the most impossible."
~ Scully, Season 10
With Scully, there is no need for her to have a romantic relationship with Mulder for her to be important. She is strong, confident, forceful, and perfectly capable without him. While I would've preferred that Chris Carter stuck to his guns and never put them together, I do realize now there is a real, natural progression in how they feel about each other. Their relationship is built on trust and respect for each other, not sexual attraction or trying to satisfy a fandom. I don't think I've ever seen two characters have such complicated yet simple feelings for each other, and I'm glad they've accepted them. I believe it makes them stronger as a team and shows us that a woman can do it all: keep a job and have a relationship and be happy with both.

Both women have to learn to accept the unacceptable throughout their journeys. Then they have to decide what to do about it. This requires a lot of strength from within, which both women have in spades. Their characters are naturally solid when it comes to believing in their own potential, and are even able to push through if they have doubts. They are not women who have to find themselves through other characters. They do not cower in the corner, afraid of the monster that might come get them. They are what I believe epitomizes how the horror genre empowers women and gives us something positive to strive for in our own lives.

I hope you've found these three posts enlightening, beneficial, and even a little bit of fun. Here's a final list of some horror films that showcase women. These are my personal favorites that truly empower women. Feel free to comment with your own!

American Mary - The allure of good money from underground surgeries creates a really delightful darkness to this strong female character.

Cat People - The original film is a story about a sexual curse on women, which at the time was a powerful message about women's relationships with men and having control over their own sexuality.

The Descent - An all-female cast truly makes this film unique. It also isn't just about the monsters--getting lost in a network of caves becomes just as terrifying, and the women have to work together to save themselves.

Flowers in the Attic - V.C. Andrews' novel was one of my first introductions to horror and it honestly really freaked me out. The film isn't nearly as graphic as the book, but I still recommend it for the creepy performance by Louise Fletcher, aka Nurse Ratched.

Ginger Snaps - Not only is this a way cool werewolf film, it is also about puberty and girls dealing with being the outcasts of their school.

The Others - This is my absolute favorite ghost movie. The core of this film is a mother dealing with loss and terror at being trapped in her own home by her children's illness. The twist ending just smacks you in the face as well.

Suspiria - While the ending of this film is considered cliche in this day and age, the film is still a gorgeous representation of female rivalry and the fear of the unknown.

Under the Skin - This film is a slow burn, but it's worth your time. A fascinating look at a woman's self discovery through her relationships with men. The film took ten years to make, and the scenes where Scarlett Johansson picks up the men are actually real. Based on the novel of the same name (which I personally haven't read yet).

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? -  A story about former-vaudevillian actress sisters who have lost their childish youth and are haunted by age and sibling rivalry--truly frightening. The overly dramatic performances by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are perfect for such a tale of madness and jealousy.

The Witch - This film's tagline is "A Puritan nightmare," and I definitely believe that is captured. It's also a bit of a disturbing message about the struggles women went through during such oppressive times.

COMING UP FOR THE REST OF WOMEN IN HORROR MONTH: I'm interviewing quite a few horror authors who are women so you can see what they think about the genre and learn where to get their works!


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