In Praise of the Shy Girl: Halloween’s Laurie Strode (Women In Horror Series)

What’s a Women In Horror series without Jamie Lee Curtis?

Not just the most famous Final Girl in cinema history but one of the most influential and a main originator of the term, Laurie Strode is, for me, the queen. Future horror heroines would emerge from the building blocks of Laurie’s character and develop in more progressive directions (see Nancy Thompson, Ellen Ripley, and Sidney Prescott), but without Laurie, would they exist? For all of Halloween’s flaws when it comes to portrayals of women in general, she should never be dismissed as just a simplistic Final Girl, or only the trope’s codifier.

The reason Halloween remains successful is because its terror stems from a deliberately simple premise: unexpected violence in a suburban neighborhood. Laurie spends Halloween day going through the motions of her daily life: school, home, friends, work. She feels listless, bored, and unsettled — only for her routine to suffer disruption from a serial killer. That’s something that could happen to any of us, the monotonously predictable grind of existence uprooted just because someone decided, without discernible reason or motive except their own sadism, they wanted to kill us. Specifically, a man with hatred for the female body. Laurie expects a typical night babysitting, not a fight-to-the-death situation, and it happens so fast she isn’t granted more than seconds to plan any sort of proactive, autonomous attack of her own — exactly how it would play out in real life if someone broke into our home. She’s alone, in a house not her own, lacking any parental supervision or assistance. Within this context her reactive, defensive nature is perfectly acceptable, and doesn’t define her as a victim. How many of us wouldn’t cry and scream and panic at the realization we’re being hunted to our deaths?

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Paranormal Activity and the Perils of Male Hubris (Women In Horror Series)

Widely lauded for its slow burn tension and practical effects, Paranormal Activity is at heart a cautionary tale: don’t fuck with supernatural forces. That’s not a new theme in horror, nor does it offer a particularly inventive take on the subject, but the film does do something rare with its haunting/possession premise: deconstruct masculine arrogance and the harm it inflicts upon women.

Filmed in same found footage style made famous by The Blair Witch Project (and responsible for single-handedly repopularizing the genre), Paranormal follows young couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat). Their house is haunted by a demon that’s appeared intermittently in Katie’s life since her childhood, and Micah decides to document the supernatural occurrences with his expensive new camera. Of course, that’s the absolute worst thing to do—a psychic warns him that engaging with the demon grants it energy to grow stronger. Micah ignores this advice despite Katie’s pleas to the contrary, leading to an escalation of violent occurrences.

It’s very common for characters in horror movies to make bad decisions. Scream’s genre-savvy heroine Sydney Prescott explicitly calls the trope out: “Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door.” In this situation Micah’s the girl running up the stairs (or toward the source of the mysterious noise, or down a dark hallway), but it’s not just a case of convenient genre foolishness — his actions are inseparable from his arrogance. From start to finish he’s the epitome of male privilege, a walking fountain of bombastic machismo. He taunts the demon into action (what, are they gonna duke it out like bros?), assures Katie he’s the only one who can help her, and tosses out declarations like, “nobody comes into my house, fucks with my girlfriend, and gets away with it.” In order to maintain and elevate his own sense of self-confidence, he dominates: overruling Katie’s wishes, undermining her actions, and brazenly challenging the demon to “do its worst.” He might as well ask it to compare penis size with him, his attitude is that frat boy stereotypical. And not only does his aggressive bravado allow the demon to terrorize, inhabit, and ultimately destroy Katie, all because Micah thinks he’s invincible, his words indicate an attitude of ownership — he views Katie as a possession to control.

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Fairy Tales and Final Girls: The Female-Centric Suspiria (Women In Horror Series)

Love him or loathe him (or somewhere in between), Dario Argento is the king of giallo, and 1977’s Suspiria remains his masterpiece — an operatic, surreal, feverish exercise, the closest cinema has come to capturing a nightmare on film. Jessica Harper (Phantom of the Paradise) stars as Suzy Bannion, an American ballet student enrolled at a prestigious German dance school. After several students are brutally murdered, Suzy suspects there’s something supernatural afoot within the walls of Tanz Academy — specifically, witchcraft.

Arguably most famous for its lavish color schemes and unsettling cacophonous score, Suspiria is a tricky one when it comes to women. First, the good.

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Through a Mother’s Eyes: The Babadook and Examining Trauma (Women In Horror Series)

Mothers get a bad rap in horror movies. They’re either defined as the angelic defender, seen in The Exorcist, The Shining, and Poltergeist, or an inherently corruptive evil: Carrie, Psycho, Friday the 13th. That latter characterization evolved into a prominent sub-genre, the Bad Mother, a force of terrifying violence born from an inability to conform to the socio-political qualities associated with motherhood. While some of these characters are impressive figures, few challenge their old-fashioned interpretations by offering complex, honest portrayals of mothers. Even less originate from the perspective of the parent — which is where director-writer Jennifer Kent’s masterpiece The Babadook makes waves.

The film follows Amelia Vannick (Essie Davis), a widowed mother whose husband died the night her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) was born. Seven years later Amelia exists in a profound state of mourning. Exacerbating her turmoil is Samuel’s frequent misbehavior: he’s unpredictable, prone to temper tantrums and causing trouble in school. Despite trying so hard to be the perfect, patient mother, Amelia can’t find a moment of rest or privacy. She’s perpetually exhausted and stressed, nerves shredded to their utmost, especially when Samuel turns unexpectedly violent in the wake of reading a disturbing children’s book titled Mister Babadook. Convinced the Babadook is real, Samuel’s outbursts intensify, and in tandem Amelia’s emotional and mental stamina frays — leading her to wonder if there actually is a demonic entity haunting her house.

There is, of course. The Babadook is a real creature, its book foretelling the violence that occurs when it possesses the mother of a child. Beyond the immediate physical danger it represents, the Babadook serves as a triple-threat subtextual allegory for grief, depression, and motherhood.

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Together Forever: Sisterhood and Femininity in Ginger Snaps (Women In Horror Series)

“No one ever thinks chicks do shit like this. A girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease, or the virgin next door. We’ll just coast on how the world works.”

Ginger Snaps is one of the most clever, thematically dense, and unrepentantly female-focused horror films ever made. A wholly original gem written by Karen Walton and starring horror icons Katharine Isabelle (American Mary, Hannibal) and Emily Perkins (It), the film follows the edgy, goth, death-obsessed Fitzgerald sisters: Brigitte (Perkins) and the eponymous Ginger (Isabelle). On the night Ginger has her first period, she’s attacked by a werewolf, and as the rules of lore dictate, she starts becoming one herself.

Body horror is a widely examined subject in the genre (The Fly, The Thing, Eraserhead, all other werewolf films), but the lycanthropy as allegory for puberty feels radical and innovative when reinvented through the lens of a female perspective — Ginger’s transformation into womanhood is analogous to her evolution into a monster. That’s a dire statement, but not far off from the truth of how some women feel as their bodies change. Adolescent hormones are terrifying, confusing, and unexpected, specific to the individual. And this story is told with studious, subversive, satirical awareness that avoids devolving into the “monstrous woman” trope.

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“I’m Into Survival”: Nancy Thompson, My Favorite Horror Heroine (Women In Horror Series)

When you think about A Nightmare on Elm Street, odds are you think of that guy with the burned face and knives for fingers. But why isn’t the heroine as iconic as the villain?

That’s a question Heather Langenkamp, the actress behind Nightmare’s leading lady Nancy Thompson, seeks to answer in her 2010 documentary I Am Nancy. Why is Freddymania inescapable in memorabilia and cultural references, while the defining heroine is treated like a footnote? The documentary shows Nancy, while unjustly overlooked at large, is much beloved by fans, and rightly so. She’s one of the premiere examples in the genre’s history of an empowered woman.

At first glance Nancy may seem like your average teenage murder-fodder as well as your typical Final Girl: innocent, unassuming, the only one left standing. But Nancy transcends those 1980s slasher tropes by developing over the course of the film into a fully-fledged character. Right away we see she’s deeply caring; her best friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) is rattled by a nightmare, so Nancy sleeps over at her house to keep her company. When Tina is viciously murdered and the police blame her hothead boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri), Nancy defends Rod’s innocence. But compassion is only one of her defining characteristics — she’s clever, resourceful, determined, and stunningly courageous, clever enough to not just survive through good luck, but defeat and outwit her adversary.

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