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I think the worst part about being a fan of horror movies is realizing just how many shitty horror movies one has to wade through to find the rare good one. It's even worse when you happen to be a feminist who likes horror. Let's face it: There are a lot of horror movies out there that are just plain insulting to women.
Since it's almost Halloween (the best time of the year!), I put together a list of my top 10 feminist horror movies.
Don't expect them all to have empowering feminist messages; many of these stories can be seen as allegories of serious feminist issues such as rape, women's control over their bodies and reproductive rights, and the darker sides of female friendships and competition.
So be warned that this article will touch lightly on topics such as rape — oh, and obviously, you should beware of minor and major spoilers for all of the films.
1. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Rosemary's Baby is a classic for a reason (and I'm not just talking about Mia Farrow's iconic haircut). The central themes of rape and a woman losing agency over her own body and pregnancy are, sadly, still all too relevant today. At least there's the small triumph at the end when Rosemary stirs up her courage, knife in hand, to assert her control over her motherhood and ownership of her newborn child.
2. Alien (1979)
I haven't seen the sequels to Alien, so I can't speak to the other films in the series, but the first installment definitely struck me as a feminist film. My interpretation after my first viewing of it was pretty surface-level — you know, a reaction along the lines of "Wow, Ripley was a total badass."
Repeat viewings, however, definitely reveal deeper subtext in the film. For example, have you ever noticed how much phallic and vaginal imagery is present in Alien? In addition to that, there are recurring themes of rape and birth (the scene with the alien bursting out of one man's chest is an obvious example) and examples of blurred gender roles throughout the film (such as when Ripley takes charge or, again, when a dude basically GIVES BIRTH TO AN ALIEN).
You could definitely argue that Alien was making a commentary on the anxiety at the time of the future of gender roles in the workplace and family. (For further reading, I thought both this article and the ensuing comments were very thought-provoking.)
3. The Craft (1996)
I really wish that I had seen The Craft when I was a teenager (I was only 6 years old when this movie came out). It's basically a feminist coming-of-age tale. The story of four weird girls who are dealing with problems both common for teenage girls (such as crushes and friendship and popularity) and less common (such as an abusive stepfather and supernatural powers) is relatable in a lot of ways. OK, so I can't relate to the supernatural powers, but at that age, I definitely would have related to wanting to be more popular or prettier or more powerful.
I think every generation of teenage girls should watch this movie, if only so they know it's OK to be the weirdos.
4. The Descent (2006)
If you haven't seen The Descent, it's much better to go in knowing as little as possible (which is why I'm annoyed that the trailer below gives away kind of a huge plot point). The first part of the movie is scary enough, as a close-knit group of friends discover they are trapped in an underground cave, but then it somehow manages to get even worse.
The best part about this movie is that it could have just been a straightforward horror movie with a bunch of ditzy girlfriends or unrealistic warrior women, but it pushed beyond those stereotypes. These characters have nuance and real flaws, and they feel like women you know. Not only do you cheer for these capable, badass women as they perform feats of strength and bravery, but you also witness their shortcomings as women and friends. It's a brutally honest — and in the end, heartbreaking — look at the highs and lows of female friendship.
5. The House of the Devil (2009)
Not to give too much away (OK, this is basically going to give away everything, so you've been warned) but I like to think of this as a sort of prequel or companion to Rosemary's Baby. The two films are similar in a lot of ways: the constant build-up of dread and suspense throughout most of the running time, an older Satanic couple manipulating a young woman, and the heroine losing agency over her womb.
The only difference is that Rosemary at least wanted to be pregnant and have a baby, whereas in The House of the Devil, Samantha has it unexpectedly forced upon her. It is truly one of the most horrific reveals I've ever seen in a movie, and you could certainly read it as a metaphor for the horror of being impregnated from rape.
6. You're Next (2011)
I had to include You're Next simply for how unexpectedly kick-ass the heroine was in this movie. First you meet this sweet girl who looks like Ann Perkins from Parks and Recreation, then the next thing you know, she's displaying an impressive knowledge of survival skills and self-defense. The best part is how much it surprises everyone else in the film, too. This girl is not going to allow herself to be a mere pawn in the sick game that's being played; she takes control of the situation and (more or less) comes out on top.
Perhaps I like it so much because it's a bit of wish-fulfillment for me, as a total wimp who would be the first to die in a horror movie, but whatever. Sometimes I just want to see a woman kick ass in a horror movie instead of cowering the entire time.
7. The Babadook (2014)
Why are there so few horror movies made by women? I don't know the answer to that, but I'm glad that The Babadook came along and hopefully made other people ask themselves that same question. Written and directed by Australian Jennifer Kent, it's a fantastically disturbing story about a single mother and her son fighting a monster that has infiltrated their home.
It can clearly be seen as a metaphor for a single mom dealing with the burden of raising her child while battling grief and/or depression. It's a very dark and unsettling film, but I like how the end has a very realistic and tempered glimmer of hope. There's really no defeating this particular monster: The best you can hope for is to work every day to keep it under control. I can't wait to see what else Kent creates.
8. It Follows (2014)
I actually didn't think It Follows was particularly frightening, but I still really liked it. There are a few jump scares, but it mostly has a heavy, creeping sense of dread throughout, which works well for the kind of story this movie is trying to tell.
The main gist is that the heroine, Jay, sleeps with a boy, only to have him inform her that he has passed a fatal curse onto her. The only way to get rid of it (and the shape-shifting, murderous zombie that starts to doggedly follow her everywhere) is to have sex with someone else and pass the curse onto them.
Besides the obvious allusion to the fears that all teenage girls experience when it comes to sex (such as STDs, slut-shaming, unwanted pregnancy, and rejection), there's also a never-explained tension connected to Jay's absent father which culminates in the film's climax. Whether he abused her or abandoned her or simply passed away, we don't know — and that is just one example of how this film's restraint helps it to create a mirror that reflects our own personal fears back at us.
Oh, and this has nothing to do with feminism, but the soundtrack is also really good.
9. The VVitch (2015)
After I saw The VVitch, I tried to hide how completely rattled I was by joking that at least the heroine, Thomasin, found a happy ending. It's not really a joke, though.
Consider this: Thomasin starts the movie at the bottom of the ladder, as the oldest daughter in a Puritan family and as a young girl about to reach womanhood in an intensely patriarchal society. She spends most of the film on her knees praying for her sins, working hard for her parents, and constantly denying accusations of deceit and malice. The best she can hope for is to be sent away to another family for a life of more work and to bear children for someone she doesn't know.
So yes, I have to admit that inwardly I was cheering a little bit when she marched off to dance naked by the fire with a bunch of other witches (even though I was also kind of like, "Ooh, girl, I don't know about that Black Phillip dude..."). I absolutely think that Thomasin's journey — from devout, dutiful daughter to a laughing, bloodied woman freed of clothing, religion, family, and convention — has a feminist message. It could be seen as a warning for how a patriarchal society can destroy a family and drive both men and women to madness.
All I know is that I kind of like how the ending made me feel empowered and uncomfortable at the same time.
10. Hush (2016)
Finally, we have this gem, which I discovered not too long ago on Netflix. It's similar to You're Next in that it's an invasion film with a heroine who can kick ass, but with a twist: the heroine is deaf.
If You're Next was wish fulfillment for me, this movie takes it to the next level because I myself am partially deaf. It made for an interesting watch because, on one hand, it was very satisfying to see a woman with a disability, like myself, portrayed as a strong and nuanced horror movie heroine; on the other hand, it hit a little too close to home. At times I felt like I was watching myself be in a horror movie. Still, three cheers for horror movies being more diverse in organic and inventive ways.
I know I left out a few. For example, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which I have yet to finish watching, and A Cabin in the Woods and The Final Girls, which are parodies but they still get honorable mentions.
What do you think qualifies as a great feminist horror movie?