Women’s roles in horror examined

By Amber Jones and By Amber Jones

In horror films, women are often represented as vulnerable, powerless, or hypersexual damsels in distress while their male counterparts are depicted as smart and heroic characters.

However, representations of women and men in horror films have changed over time, allowing for more dynamic characters, something Arizona State University student Britt Rhuart wanted to look into further.

While earning his master’s degree for American Media and Popular Cultural Studies, Rhuart presented his view on women in horror films in his essay “Scream Queens: The Heroines in Horror Films” during the Women’s Center weekly Wednesday discussions. Here are three essential female characters in horror films Rhuart highlighted and the stereotypes they point to, as well as how these screen depictions reflect views about women during the time period in which the film was released.

1. Fay Wrey as Ann Darrow in “King Kong” (1933)

“In early filmmaking, women were nothing more than a movie prop. They were something to be desired, something to be saved,” Rhuart said.

For instance, in “King Kong,” Ann Darrow is portrayed as an innocent white woman who is in need of rescuing throughout the film.

Both male characters, Carl Denham (who invites Darrow on the trip to Skull Island) and Jack Driscoll, only find interest in her because of her outward beauty.

Their appreciation for her is seen through the male gaze: the masculine way in which visual arts and literature depict women as objects of male pleasure.

2.Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in “Halloween” (1978)

“Beginning in the 60s and 70s with the rise of sexual revolution, women became much more of a stronger protagonist, and it is in my view that women in horror films have mirrored what is going on in women’s role in society,” Rhuart said.

In the “Halloween” franchise, the heroine, Laurie Strode, is still seen as pure and innocent throughout the film, but in the end, she fights the villain (her brother Michael Myers), thus displaying status her as the strong female character outliving every other character in the film.

This is known as the Final Girl trope; the last woman alive confronts the killer through phallic appropriation, such as killing the killer with his own blade. The film example was when Laurie picked up Myers’ knife and stabbed him in the final scene.

“Laurie is the ultimate slasher scream queen. The character provides a true form of a great horror heroine. She is selfless, independent, and strong,” Rhuart said.

However, The Final Girl must suffer from PTSD (ex. Strode ending up in an insane asylum), further reinforcing the stereotypical concern asking how can women move on from such a traumatic event in their life.

Some more examples on the Final Girl trope can be seen in characters like Nancy Thompson (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”), Sidney Prescott (“Scream”) and Sally Hardesty (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”).

3. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in “Aliens” franchise (1979-90s)

In “Alien,” Ellen Ripley is the hero, physically and mentally, and the expert. It was a first for female characters to have all these characteristics in horror films, giving her the status of the Ultimate Feminist Horror Heroine.

Ripley’s character is not defined by any males in the film as she continues to fight and save her crew because she also has the knowledge of how to kill the aliens. She’s not a sidekick or a damsel to be rescued, she’s the hero of the franchise.