If horror storytelling were an unassembled IKEA wardrobe, women would be the scrappy DIY-er who pieces it together. From Mary Shelley’s ground-shattering Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire, female voices have been entrenched in the genre for decades on paper, emerging on screen more frequently as time has passed. There’s Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Mina in Tod Browning’s Dracula, the titular young mother at the heart of Roman Polanski’s iconic Rosemary’s Baby. And even those girls who don’t get front-and-center treatment have given way to entirely new horror tropes: the wide-eyed “first girls” and the hard-to-hunt “final girls” (like Ellen Ripley in Alien, Suzy Bannion in Suspiria, Sidney Prescott in Scream) popularized in the 1970s, coined in the 1990s, and continued on today.
It’s no secret that women have been ever-present in horror flicks on the silver screen, seen getting hacked to bits by off-the-rails male killers and shot in sexual-driven sequences always angled from the male gaze. But it feels as though they’ve been somewhat missing on the other side, shadowed over by male filmmakers whose clout and influence takes up another seat at the dinner table.
This isn’t to say that women in film and the horror genre are mutually exclusive, however. Women have had a major creative hand in horror films for quite some time, but always in tiny numbers: there was Amy Holden Jones’ gonzo slasher The Slumber Party Massacre and Mary Harron’s instant classic American Psycho that made audiences the world over fear chainsaws, well-dressed men, and peel-off face masks. Movie scribe Debra Hill co-wrote one of the most revered horror flicks of all time: John Carpenter’s Halloween, adding multifaceted characterization to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode — a woman who has become the slim-faced icon of ‘80s horror. Kathryn Bigelow, who would go on to snag an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of the Year in 2010 for her distinctly non-horror movie The Hurt Locker, sharpened her teeth directing the 1987 vampire pic Near Dark, an entry into the genre that stood as the most influential film of its kind that decade — and one that went on to impact Catherine Hardwicke’s take on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.
While female horror directors aren’t mythical creatures of any sort (though they are undeniably magical), it’s a hard-and-fast fact that the genre has long been dominated by men and characterized as being innately misogynistic for its treatment of its fictional women who have faced sexual exploitation and degrading acts of violence. It’s a tight and even hypocritical spot for a film genre to be: countless female characters fall to the hands of men both chaotic and calculated in acts aligning with the skeleton of standard horror, but even more female film fans are wanting to connect with works of the genre, see themselves or themes with which they identify spilling out on screen as often as the blood of a victim does.
And as it turns out, female filmmakers want the same thing. Stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight are a number of women (a tally that has only grown larger each year) who have deconstructed the stocks of traditional horror to craft new, invigorating, and absolutely terrifying takes on the genre.
One such creative is Ana Lily Amirpour, whose feature film debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night struck the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 with style and slick terror. A wily gothic vampire film that places an indie-rock-loving millennial with an all-too-relatable passion for black eyeliner on the horror villain pedestal, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night documents the eponymous Girl (played by Sheila Vand) as she hunts down evil men and drains them of their blood. The Persian-language film is as much a parable on social politics as it is a piece of pulpy, paralyzing horror that sticks with its audience long after the final scene fades away.
And Amirpour’s follow-up to it, the kaleidoscopic western The Bad Batch, is just as punchy. Featuring a cast led by Suki Waterhouse, Jim Carrey, and Keanu Reeves, The Bad Batch utilizes elements of the fantastical (in this case, cannibalism) as a means to represent emotionality, ostracism, and the fight for survival — aspects the average horror movie may not necessarily employ. Where The Bad Batch couches inquisition in the act of consuming human flesh, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does the very same. Vampirism isn’t simply snatching an innocent victim and sucking the life from their neck in Amirpour’s work; it’s a vehicle to discuss loneliness and the fleeting feeling of connection.
French film director and screenwriter Julia Ducournau had a similar breaking of barriers with her visceral coming-of-age pic Raw, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2016. Led by up-and-coming actress Garance Marillier, Raw tells the tale of Justine, a vegetarian university freshman more than eager to graduate from veterinary school at the top of her class, who acquires a taste for human flesh after eating raw rabbit kidneys during a campus-wide hazing ritual.
But Raw isn’t just about Justine’s gut-churning cravings and uncontrollable blood-thirst. It’s an exploration of female sexuality, life in the floating stage between adolescence and adulthood, and what it actually means to establish and live by a moral compass. It’s a work of horror (so horrifying that many viewers at the Toronto International Film Festival needed medical treatment after its screening) steeped in feminist exegesis and images of the womanhood and the female body, one that uses body transformation to unravel desires both sexual and otherwise as a self-concerned matter of the flesh. Raw subverts the traditional idea present in horror that the danger exists outside of ourselves, lurking just outside the window or creeping in the basement or standing on the staircase dangling a set of car keys before our eyes, and puts it back in the interior. And what’s more terrifying than realizing that we have been the monster all along?
Then there’s Jennifer Kent, whose 2014 psychological horror film The Babadook has catapulted into mainstream fame and implanted itself in the zeitgeist of 2017. (Let’s not forget the time the internet declared the titular Babadook as an LGBTQ+ icon.) Silliness aside, Kent’s The Babadook is a legitimately startling piece that twists the run-of-the-mill ghost story to walk the line between psychological trauma and fantastical horror. Within the film, single mom and widow Amelia (Essie Davis) struggles to raise her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who is panic-stricken over fears of a malevolent entity known as the Babadook, the same one featured in his favorite gothic pop-up book. Samuel’s anxieties manifest themselves in increasingly misanthropic ways, leading Amelia to miss out on many nights of sleep and to believe that her son’s fears may be valid.
The film is, admittedly, freckled with elements that are a dime a dozen in classic horrors — the occasional jump-scare will snag viewers every so often — but the pic is a subversion of traditional horror on the whole, due in large part to Kent’s keen attention to Amelia’s characterization. As The Babadook burns through Amelia’s psyche, the audience learns that she possesses the demons — not the powerful monster, and not Samuel. This reveal is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but Kent purposefully cuts out those rivers of blood and meticulously crafted shots to establish the same type of relationship between the protagonist and the viewer: we want to connect with Amelia as much as we want to turn and run from her, much like we wanted to do with Jack Torrance.
Kent’s deep-dive into the machinations of a woman’s mind feels rebellious on its own, but when it happens in a horror film, it’s something quite special, as mainstream genre works tend to depict women as speechless victims or eye candy to ballistic serial killers. But Amelia isn’t either of those things. She’s a grieving wife and a mother desperate for a strong relationship with her only child, who simply cannot move on from the initial impact of loss, an identity we have all assumed in one way or another. The choices in narrative design and direction that Kent made with The Babadook have resonated deeply with audiences the world over, pushing the film to become the Coca-Cola of modern-day psychological horror and allowing room for other creatives to experiment with themes of the same kind.
Karyn Kusama is yet another female filmmaker whose construction of fictional women feels at once realistic and transfixing, especially when it comes to female villains, and her ability to bundle a film’s meaning within layers of gore and terror. Kusama’s 2009 effort Jennifer’s Body saw Megan Fox playing an actual maneater who feeds on the bodies of jocks and rockers who vie for her attention, but who also forms a complicated relationship with Amanda Seyfried’s once-quiet high school student Anita “Needy” Lesnicki. Sure, viewers got an iron-tinged taste of Fox’s Jennifer ripping at the corpses and a twisted glimpse into the winding-out psychosis of Seyfried’s Needy — traditional horror movie goodness — but what was at the true heart of the film was a female friendship, however blood-soaked it turned out to be.
Critics were split on Jennifer’s Body, but when Kusama re-entered the horror scene two years ago with The Invitation, they were unanimously hooked. Written by Kusama’s own husband Phil Hay, The Invitation mirrors that Matryoshka doll approach to storytelling that Jennifer’s Body did, bundling what’s ultimately a tale of cult mentality, paranoia, and the need to be polite in an exterior narrative that explores the disintegrated relationship one man (Will, played by Logan Marshall-Green) has with his ex-wife and the pain he feels after losing his young son. Kusama’s direction of Hay’s script leaves the viewer constantly guessing what will happen next, even after the climax smashes across the screen and the answers are sprawled out plain to see.
Recently, Kusama took the reins for XX, the all-female horror anthology that stitches together a series of horror so emotionally affecting, it’s not hard to believe it was borne from a woman’s mind. Her piece, titled “Her Only Living Son,” joins Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box,” Annie Clark’s (also known as St. Vincent) “The Birthday Party,” and Roxanne Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” for a heart-stopping collection that takes the foundation of horror, cracks it, and fills it with tales of mother-son relations, mental illness, disorderly behavior, and male privilege in the modern day. Like each of the films from the directors aforementioned, this one isn’t simply horror for the sake of horror, it’s so much more.
Whether or not the growing presence of female directors in the horror cinema scape is a sign that the gender of the genre is shifting, these four women are undoubtedly leading a charge into further greatness and continued expansion. They’ve taken that IKEA wardrobe that may have had a backwards knob, a lopsided drawer, an in-turned leg the first time around and broken it down, grabbed a hammer and a bunch of nails and a pamphlet of instructions written in a dozen different languages, and built it back up stronger than before. And in an age where the world delivers worries to your doorstep like clothes you forgot you ordered, that newly constructed wardrobe becomes a place to put them, offering a reminder that long-needed change is coming — in cinema and in life alike.