Disclaimer: the majority of the films mentioned here feature white women. It is important to note that women of color face additional barriers when it comes to underrepresentation within horror films and the film industry in general.
Tropes throughout history
Perhaps the most identifiable trope in the horror genre is the “Final Girl” with its poster girl being Jaime Lee Curtis’ character, Laurie Strode, in Halloween. This trope generally refers to the “good girl” who stays sober, abstains from sex, and ultimately survives at the end of the movie. The problem with this? The other women in the movie are typically not so innocent, whether they were promiscuous or even had sex once, they are the first to die. The “Final Girl” is really just cinematic slut-shaming at its finest.
And what is a conversation about sex and slut-shaming without talking about Friday the 13th? In fact, both versions of the film open with a scene where two teenagers are killed immediately after having sex. We see the same trope in Prom Night (1980) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). In Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy, who refuses to sleep with her boyfriend, actually survives. There is an obvious connection across horror franchises between female characters who choose to engage in sex and their premature deaths.
An interesting, and rather subversive take on this trope comes from the 2014 film, It Follows. Though there has been debate about what the movie is actually about, the premise here is the fear of sex, or what happens as a result. The main character engages in sex and is then “followed” by a malicious force – “it” is arguably a metaphor for the social stigmas that continue to follow women who have sex.
“The male gaze”
Many horror films can be seen as having an obvious “male gaze” or female-objectifying viewpoint. Typically, those films present women in an overly sexualized manner. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is a classic example of the male gaze. The notorious “Shower Scene” features a woman undressing, suggesting vulnerability, and washing herself sensually before being brutally murdered by Norman Bates.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) directed by Francis Coppola, also notably uses female sexuality to appeal to a male audience. One scene in particular shows a kiss between characters Lucy and Mina, while Count Dracula watches, unbeknownst to the two. The “lesbian vampire” or sometimes “bisexual vampire” is an additional trope that plays into a common male fantasy within cinema.
Behind the scenes
The vast majority of horror directors have been men, so it’s no surprise that the stories of women in horror have consistently been so one-dimensional. Of course, there are male-directed movies that are doing something right, but can they really be free from the “male gaze?” Can female-directed films fall into the same harmful archetypes? It depends.
True representation can really only come from diversity. The film industry, like most entertainment industries, has long been male-dominated. Recent data has shown that, of the top-100 grossing films of 2017, only 8 percent of all directors were women. The issue of credibility is often cited as being the biggest obstacle for women in film. Director and producer Elena Rossini explains this implicit bias as, “an aspect of dismissal and minimizing of what I do, the instantaneous assumption that I could not possibly be a real film director.” Nevertheless, there are brilliant women who continue to pursue film, and tirelessly tell their stories.