Harry Shepherd-Smith discusses the role of gender in Horror films.
Horror has long been the genre with the most defined gender roles, with films like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Friday the 13th centring on a plucky (and often virginal) heroine defending herself from an unstoppable masculine force. It seems to me that the trope of the gynocentric horror film was initially brought about as a form of screenwriting shorthand, by which the threat of the antagonist was exaggerated via juxtaposition. It’s not hard to see how Michael Myers and Leatherface cut far more imposing figures when faced up against a slight young woman poorly suited to close-quarters combat.
The development of the ‘final girl’ was arguably necessary in that it more easily enabled filmmakers to sell the abject terror a protagonist must experience in facing their antagonist. As the audience vicariously experiences the terror of the film’s central character, the utilisation of the less combative and physically weaker sex is more conducive to an atmosphere of believable dread. This phenomenon is ironically offset by the often androgynous name or appearance of the archetypal horror heroine, which can be seen as both an attempt to appeal to the proportionally larger demographic of men watching horror films, or a departure from gender trappings in order to give the character universal appeal.
The decidedly female orientation of slasher films in particular also coincides historically with the rise of second-wave feminism, which called for better representation of women in the media throughout the 70s, during which many seminal horror films were released.
As this decade drew on however, it is possible to observe a corresponding evolution in the characterisation of women when faced with a deadly opponent. From defenceless victim to emancipated hero, the reflection of the women’s liberation movement in the genre arguably culminated with Ripley in 1979’s Alien, a character consistently lauded as one of the greatest of the twentieth century. Alongside contemporaries like Halloween’s Laurie Strode, the heightened agency of the later-era horror heroine represents an acknowledgment of more nuanced feminine qualities of instinctual maternal protectiveness and hostility to sexual objectification, as opposed to the passive run-and-hide mentality of their predecessors.
In short, exploration of gender through the medium of horror films has led to more nuanced and emancipated representations of women than almost any other genre, many of whom serve as near perfect reconciliations of virtue and violence. I am glad to see that this trope has seen a resurgence in recent years, and sincerely hope more final girls in the vein of Erin from 2013’s You’re Next will populate current horror fiction.