Throughout the history of horror movies, women have had an ever-evolving presence in the genre. From the early days of horror—with films like Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Wolf Man—female characters were often designated to being damsels in distress, fainting at the sight of a horrific monster. As slasher films became popular throughout the 1970s-1990s, female characters became an irresistible object of desire for the masked killer, with the torment of female characters being dragged out for twice as long as their male counterparts onscreen.
However, when women step behind the camera, the focus of horror shifts profoundly. No longer are the female characters subjected to the role of a powerless victim, but these female-directed horror films actively challenge the conventions of the genre to create subversive and liberating narratives that showcase not only female survivors but female power.
‘A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’ (2014)
Following a vampiric teenage vigilante patrolling the quiet streets of Bad City on her skateboard, the unnamed heroine played by Sheila Vand in Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a modern and empowering character for all teenage girls fighting for justice.
With an ensemble of bad people in Bad City—drug dealers, pimps, and abusive men—A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night gives a unique and powerful agency to a teenage girl who can navigate the world without fear. While the vampires are often depicted as alluring and sensual, the film weaponizes this trope by using their charm, not for pleasure but for power and justice.
‘Jennifer’s Body’ (2009)
When Jennifer Check (Megan Fox)—the popular cheerleader at Devil’s Kettle High School—is transformed into a man-eating succubus after a Satanic sacrifice goes wrong, she discovers that along with her hunger for flesh is a newfound power.
While many movies are subjected to the male gaze, none do it with as much titillating suspense as the horror genre. Aware of the historical objectification of women in horror, Karyn Kusama challenges this notion in Jennifer’s Body. A film title that immediately draws attention to Jennifer as an object—a body—Jennifer’s Body is in a constant state of tantalizing the male gaze while never actually satisfying it. In doing so, Kusama’s film is self-aware of the male gaze and subverts this expectation to create its powerful female characters.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is following in her family’s footsteps by attending her first year of veterinary school. Despite being raised as a strict vegetarian, she is forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney as part of a college hazing ritual and soon develops an insatiable hunger for the pleasures of the flesh.
Julia Ducournau’s debut feature film Raw is a transgressive coming-of-age tale told through body horror. With its focus on hunger and desire, Raw subverts the conservative values of the horror genre that has historically championed its “pure” characters while justifying its punishment of promiscuous characters. Ducournau challenges the conception of female desire by actively enabling Justine to not just desire but to devour and delight in its pleasure.
‘The Fear Street Trilogy’ (2021)
Netflix’s Fear Street Trilogy saw Leigh Janiak adapting R.L. Stine’s horror book series across a trilogy of movies. With each film set in a different era—1994, 1978, and 1666—The Fear Street Trilogy revolves around a group of teenagers trying to break the curse that has plagued their town for centuries.
While The Fear Street Trilogy pays homage to many classic horror films—Scream, Friday the 13th, and Halloween—Janiak’s trilogy forges its own path outside its inspiration through its groundbreaking queer representation. Queer characters in cinema have historically met their demise by the film’s end. However, with the queer love story at the center of The Fear Street Trilogy, Janiak has enabled the film’s queer protagonists to survive the horror film and have a happy ending.
Jen (Matilda Lutz) and her boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens) are on a romantic getaway in the middle of the desert. When Richard’s friends interrupt the couple by arriving a day early, they continue to disrupt their getaway by assaulting Jen. After fleeing into the desert, Jen is seemingly left for dead by her attackers, but after recovering, she soon seeks revenge on the men who have assaulted her.
Coralie Fargeat’s debut feature film, Revenge, is an empowering tale of female vengeance with a viscerally thrilling horror aesthetic. Flipping many of the genre’s tropes, Revenge subverts convention through its feminist themes in this vengeful tale of brutal empowerment.
Stewart Thorndike’s Lyle follows the paranoia of a grieving mother, Leah (Gaby Hoffman), who has just moved into a new home with her partner. After the mysterious death of their first child, Leah is overcome with fear while expecting their second child as she believes their perfect Brooklyn Brownstone to be haunted.
As a psychological horror film that makes you question whether Leah’s paranoia is the devil’s witchcraft or delusion, Lyle echoes the pregnant horror narrative of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. However, with its LGBT characters, Thorndike’s film is considered more of a lesbian ode to Rosemary’s Baby, allowing the film to explore uncharted terrain for both LGBT narratives and subjects of horror cinema.
As a genre-bending comedy-horror film, Prevenge follows Ruth (Alice Lowe) as the pregnant widow convinced her fetus is compelling her to embark on a killing spree to avenge the death of her husband.
Filmed during Lowe’s pregnancy, Prevenge offers a transgressive tale satirizing the many cultural mores associated with pregnancy. Transforming the often male-dominated demonic pregnancy trope into a slashing satire from a woman’s perspective offers a dark comedy insight into the life of soon-to-be motherhood.
Set in rural Australia during a zombie apocalypse, Andy (Martin Freeman) has 48 hours after being bitten to find a home for his baby daughter before he succumbs to the zombie virus.
In adapting their short film of the same name, Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s Cargo is a beautiful blend of horror and family drama with plenty of heart. Offering a more somber addition to the horror genre, Cargo is a character-centric film that slowly reveals the horrors of humanity, the plight for survival, and the strength of a father willing to protect his daughter.
‘The Babadook’ (2014)
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is an Australian psychological horror film following Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother. She is faced with confronting her son’s fear of a monster in their home.
The Babadook addresses many themes—parenting, loss, and grief—that are explored through the guise of horror. Kent’s film creates a unique relationship between the monster and its victim in this allegory for grief in which The Babadook represents trauma and the dangers of not addressing it.
‘Saint Maud’ (2019)
In her feature directorial debut Saint Maud, Rose Glass tells the story of a devout hospice nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark). She becomes obsessed with saving the immortal soul of her dying patient and retired famous dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle).
Through its visionary feminist lens on body horror, Saint Maud navigates through themes of religion, sexuality, and physical trauma as Maud attempts a metaphysical transformation through increasingly gory mortifications of the flesh. Subverting the typically heteronormative motivations of the horror genre that often revolve around the sanctity of the female body, Glass’ film transforms the female body into a source of fear itself.