(Un)Feminist Guilty Pleasures: Horror Movies

One of my favorite things to do on Halloween is to just chill out with my peoples/honey and watch horror movies. I’m a big fan of scary flicks, yet I always run into the obvious – that so many of them are pretty damn sexist.
So yes, I’ll admit I’ve watched some horror films that are a feminist’s nightmare – basically those cheesy, old school sexist flicks that are so silly and ridiculous, it’s laughable. But I also can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to turn off a movie five minutes in because the glorification of violence against women is so blatant.
Yet every once in a while, I come across a scary movie that actually manages to be sexist-free. I would say one example is The Descent, a scary-ass film with an all-female cast of really strong characters.
So tonight, Jessica and I are getting a bunch of scary movies to watch. Do any buffs have suggestions of some feminist-friendly horror we could get?

Join the Conversation

  • Helen

    The Descent rocks! I love horror flicks and that is one of my all-time favourites. It’s creepy, it’s gory and it’s full of strong, smart women who kick some serious ass. I would argue that both Alien and Aliens has a feminist edge to them, and in the completely nerve-wrecking and amazing The Orphanage the protagonist is an intelligent, mature woman.

  • marilove

    I don’t do horror flicks. Horror books, yes, but not horror flicks. Honestly, I get enough weird dreams from Dexter, I don’t need anymore. (I am very sensitive to anything I read or watch … I will almost always dream about it that night. Sigh.)
    And, as I don’t believe in the supernatural at all, anything involving ghosts and the undead and whatnot tends to make me yawn. And anything “real” (like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.) freaks me out too much BECAUSE IT COULD REALLY HAPPEN!

  • Becky

    Ginger Snaps, Ginger Snaps 2, and May would be at the top of my list. But do yourself a favor and unless you become a huge fan of the Ginger Snaps franchise, skip the third one.
    I also really liked Hard Candy but I don’t recommend it for everyone. Teeth was a giant sized disappointment. If you’ve seen the trailer you’ve seen the best the movie has to offer.
    Another movie that doesn’t have a feminist bent exactly, but isn’t anti-women in the slightest is The Mist. It is incredibly good which surprised me considering it’s a Stephen King movie and there hasn’t been a good remake of one of his books in a long time. But it’s directed by the same guy who did Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
    My feminist guilty pleasure includes the Resident Evil franchise. I just never get tired of watching Milla Jovovich running around and kicking zombies in the head. She does all of her own stunts, including running 60 feet vertically down the side of a skyscraper. And watching the movie with her commentary on always makes me laugh when I’m having a bad day.

  • NapoleonInRags

    On the feminist/non-feminist nature of horror movies (including the old school slasher flicks) I can’t recommend strongly enough Carol Clover’s book “Men, Women, and Chainsaws.” It’s a great study of how audiences identify across genders in viewing these movies.

  • ShelbyWoo

    I couldn’t agree more with you about The Decent. Besides that fact that it is basically sexist-free and features amazing, strong female characters, it’s incredibly scary and has one of the best endings for a thriller/horror flick ever. I recommend it to anyone and everyone.
    (I’m also in agreement with you on Alien and Aliens and – since we seem to have similar taste – I will definitely be checking out The Orphanage).

  • southernbitch

    severance! it’s british. has some absolutely great female characters who aren’t the stereotypical constructs of women in most horror films. i cannot recommend it enough.

  • ElleStar

    Another Stephen King movie that, while not feminist, that isn’t misogynistic is Carrie. In the movie, it is the females that are the ones pushing the plot forward. It’s girls who provide the action. In Carrie, females aren’t painted with a broad brush, they each have their motivations, complex or not, and characters that aren’t just there for set dressing as tragic, beautiful victims.

  • Emily

    which ending? I really loved the ending so was a little sad when i saw the one they really wanted. Agreed that Alien and Aliens is awesome and I definitely would recommend the Orphanage.
    NapoleonInRags. My husband (he’s a cinema major) read that book and keeps bringing it up so it definitely left an impression. Though we watched a few of the movies in there, I Spit On Your Grave had to be the most disturbing movie I have ever seen and was the movie that made me think that movies with explicit rape sense should really have a disclaimer at the beginning.

  • katrina_holloway

    oh man, i remember, i had surgery about 2 years ago, and i wanted to see the descent, but i had it confused with the cave, so i rented the cave instead. horrible, horrible movie, though it was very funny and entertaining :p
    i got to see the descend the next week, and i really liked it.

  • BornSlippy

    The Cell. It does show stylized violence against the female victims of the serial killer so viewers sensitive to that may not wish to watch, but Jennifer Lopez is excellent and the film also features an industry rarity: a strong female victim who successfully fights back against the situation the villain has placed her in.
    My roommate introduced me to the Alien series, of which Alien and Alien 3 are by far the best, with Alien 3 in particular having a lot of really juicy gender-related themes and Sigourney Weaver at some of her best. Make sure and get the director’s/alternative cut of Alien 3, though, and not the crap theatrical cut, as the former includes a lot of extra foottage that really fleshes out the story to its fullest potential.
    Silence of the Lambs does have characters who are sexist towards Clarice, but its an absolute favorite of mine and one of the movies I watch (in a bizarro marathon with Legally Blond) when I feel the need for a boost of “I can take the world and nobody can stop me!”.
    Not a movie, but fans of Frankenstein should run not walk to Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson, a femenist examination of what the life of Frankenstein’s female monster (the “Bride of Frankenstein”) would have been like had she been freed by Frankenstein’s wife/ Mary Shelley.

  • StupidVelociraptors

    28 Days Later is one of my favourites

  • BornSlippy

    Yes yes yes on Severance! A fun movie for Halloween in that it switches from horror-comedy to out-and-out horror and really plays with the cliches of the genre.
    In fact, I think I’m going to put it on now while I make Halloween treats!

  • katie80andstuff

    i watched “the descent” on a work retreat in the mountains, and the walk back to my cabin after seeing that was horrible. as was the zero sleep i got that night.
    so clearly i’m not a horror buff, but i really loved “teeth”. not a horror movie, but a great funny flick with a feminist bent for sure.

  • daphna

    The Cave was really bad (and kind of fun), but the plot was surprisingly close to the one in The Descent. I don’t think either of them are that wonderful, but that doesn’t stop me from liking The Descent. I even had it on my ipod for a while. That was pretty stupid as it was too scary to watch on the bus, even in day light.

  • Danyell

    I’m not much into horror. (I can’t always stomach it and I don’t like movies that are actually disturbing). But my partner knows all there is to know about the genre. He agrees that too many are unnecessarily exploitive (though, some exploitation is needed. They’re movies about killing people!!) and some are only exploitive. Though he does love some of the cheesy, offensive classics, his favorites are movies that stretch the boundaries of the genre and actually say something.
    I would say that any of the George Romaro zombie movies are a good pick. They aren’t overtly feminist per say, but they’re are specifically anti-racist (he was one of the first people to cast a Black man as the hero in a horror movie), with strong women, without the sexualized overtones and each one makes a statement about capitalist society, consumerism, overconsumption, etc.
    I just recently watched Hard Candy (after everyone I know telling me that I remind them of the character Haley- Ellen Page). I would call it feminist, but I wouldn’t call it horror. It’s much more of a thriller. But it raises great debate, because some people feel there’s justice in it and others the complete opposite.
    Carrie is a classic and I think it makes important statements about religious extremism and what happens when girls submit to the stereotypes of being “catty” and seek to destroy each other, when they really should unify.

  • ShelbyWoo

    I don’t want to give it away for those that haven’t seen it, but, I’ll say the ending was realistic for situation in the film and it didn’t leave the movie open for a sequel (but, of course, Hollywood can make a sequel for anything – even if it sucks).

  • Happy Phantom

    My all time favorite: Alien 2. But Alien and Alien 3 are right up there.

  • sncreducer

    It doesn’t really count as feminist, but I certainly wouldn’t call it misogynistic either, but if you’re willing to expand into “political” horror movies, I’d recommend “Homecoming,” Joe Dante’s entry for Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series about soldiers killed in Iraq who come back to life once shipped back home so they can vote.

  • vballcourtx10

    I’ve never seen the descent but I think that it is great that a strong female character is represented in the movie. Many horror films are very sexist and usually contain scenes where the woman is killed right after some sort of sex scene after the men have been aroused. Horror movies are just another example of the male gaze.

  • KJoy

    I haven’t seen the movie but I checked out the IMDB page. I thought it was interesting how the first phrase under “plot keywords” is “Loss of Husband” and the third is “Loss of Family” – Horror!

  • ShelbyWoo

    28 Days Later also a good one – a tip for those viewing it: check out original ending on the DVD extras on this one (they didn’t use it because it didn’t screen well – audiences wanted a happier ending), so much better and more fitting than the theatrical ending.

  • squiddie

    Pan’s Labyrinth. It takes place during the Spanish Civil War and a little girl retreats into a fantasy world in order to escape her fascist step-father.

  • a.k.a UltraMagnus

    John Carpenter’s The Thing has always been my personal favorite. All male cast but it’s still got some great creature effects and chilling paranoia.
    Aliens is great (the best in the series) I also enjoyed Jeepers Creepers which has a brother/sister combo (and Mac guy Justin Long).
    If you’d like to go old school some more, The Howling (werewolf) Fright Night (vampire, though more funny) and let’s not forget Poltergeist (ghost). :)

  • aideenjohnston

    They screened The Descent as part of our film studies course as a case study on genre theory, and while I didn’t go to the screening (I can’t stand anything that makes you jump) I went to the seminar afterwards cos they’re always pretty interesting. My lecturer said that horror as a genre is all about society dialoguing with itself about its fears at the time and made a pretty convincing case for The Descent being a metaphor for the Iraq war (a troupe of Brits led by an American, who go adventuring somewhere they don’t belong, disturbing the natural inhabitants, no exit strategy etc etc). He also said that while the women are shown in non-traditional roles in the film, they are still punished for it by the end of the film…interesting stuff.

  • ikkin

    The Exorcism of Emily Rose has two strong female protagonists, but I would only recommend it if you can get into the whole possession/demon kind of thing. I was raised Catholic, so that kind of thing comes on real well for me.
    The Mist doesn’t really have any strong female characters, but I would agree that it manages to be a pretty decent horror film without objectifying a single female character.
    The critics can say what they will about Vacancy, but I thought it was pretty decent, and it does have a strong female character who whips some serious snuff-film ring ass.

  • ikkin

    Oh yeah. And Silent Hill is good too. It has two strong female characters and anti-Christian fundamentalist themes.
    But it does have a very grusome ending.

  • meg

    Slither was awesome. and Silent Hill is also one of my faves (although, most people didn’t like it). i’ll also second the Alien series.

  • lady_vampire

    Silence of the Lambs is definitely a favourite, and I love Jodie Foster’s character. So awesome! Another fave horror flick is Identity, and I also don’t recall anything to sexist about that. For a more subtle flavour of horror, go for The Others or The Skeleton Key. They’re a little like the Sixth Sense in that the ending is completely unexpected, and you can really only watch it once, ’cause then the suspense is gone. But definitely worth that first watch!

  • mgen617

    Well I love horror movies. Especially the “I can’t believe I still have a soul left over” Rob Zombie like flicks.
    But for feminist kick-ass movies, I’d definitely vote for Tarantino’s Death Proof and the Japanese film, Audition.

  • Helen

    Yay! I’m glad you’re checking out The Orphanage, because it really is phenomenal. And quite heartbreaking, actually! If you like director Guillermo del Toro, he has co-produced the film and also given it his blessing and support.
    I’m curious about what version of The Descent you’ve seen, cos there are two different endings, aren’t there? The version I’ve seen ends with Juno (imagining) escaping from the cave, getting in the car and driving, but then finding herself in the cave again, along with her daughter. Or something like that. I find that ending quite haunting, but I always wondered what the other (American) one was like.

  • s. pisaster

    I second the “Ginger Snaps” suggestion. Also “Behind the Mask” is a great horror mockumentary that sends up the survivor girl concept from films like “Halloween” and “Nightmare on Elmstreet,” actually you could argue that nearly all the super-natural stalker movies are a bit feminist, since they almost all feature a female protagonist (yeah there’s the whole sluts-die/virgins-live subtext, but I think that’s really overhyped) My personal feminist-leaning fave from that type is “Candyman.”

  • Halfmad

    Bwahaha — we did the same thing!!! And the Cave was SO BAD.
    I am still a HUGE fan of The Ring. It’s a little nonsensical (duh) in parts but so, so super creepy, and I love Naomi Watts. However, avoid Ring 2 with a passion; it is just horrible.
    The Stepford Wives if you want a good old-fashioned scare. We are currently watching Burnt Offerings (my husband fell asleep so we have to finish it tonight!) and it holds up fantastically well; great creep-out. I wouldn’t call it feminist but Bette Davis’ part is a hoot. Just really great and almost campy stuff.

  • ripley

    Alien alien alien alien! totally awesome!
    also not quite horror but totally great and cathartic and violent: Freeway
    I didn’t like silent hill or think it was feminist (it has a female lead, and lots of female characters but it’s “protective mom” vs. “evil witch” stuff mostly). Instead I’d go for
    Carrie – maybe it isn’t quite feminist but is awesome and scary

  • Halfmad

    Wow, thanks for all these great suggestions.
    I meant to mention “Audition,” a Japanese film. Now, it’s not super feminist though there is a lead female character who is about the scariest person you’d ever want to meet. It does get into a scene that I was able to handle, but you will never look at piano wire the same again. But it was utterly horrifying — and in some ways I think it was in fact sort of feminist, as the male lead holds “auditions” for a new wife (unbeknownst to the women and I’m not giving away anything here) and he chooses the most delicate flower and um…well, she’s not! >: )

  • Alias_Grace **

    The original The Stepford Wives!! Dark, creepy, soooooo feminist. It’s the perfect movie for Halloween!
    I HATE movies such as The Hills Have Eyes, or others that feature rape scenes or sexualized violence. It’s just not what I want to see in a scary movie.
    For this Halloween I’ve rented the Mothman Prophecies (so scary) and The Mist on the recommendation of other posters.

  • af

    If you guys like this stuff-
    We run a feminist media company in Vancouver.
    Here’s our entry to the 2008 Bloodshots 48 Hour Horror Filmmaking Challenge:
    If anyone wants to help us win the grand prize you can vote to the woman who runs the whole event- a horror film fanatic- email:
    bigsmashproductions@gmail.com and write JULIANA in the subject line(until the end of today).
    thanks and have a fun halloween

  • HeatherMae

    I wonder what other people here think of the Underworld movies. I’m a big fan of vampire movies, and I think Kate Beckinsale played a pretty kickass protagonist. At the start of the first one it’s obvious that the vampire society is very patriarchal, but she pretty much turns everything on its head by the end. She’s disobedient and challenges male power and succeeds rather than being punished for it. The other problem is that it has that one female main character and everyone else is male, which is pretty typical and annoying. I’d say it comes out overall not anti-feminist.

  • delilahfantastic

    while ginger snaps was fascinating from a feminist perspective, i’m not sure i’d actually describe it as feminist, given the whole lycanthropy-as-menstruation metaphor. but it’s still way ahead of most horror movies and a pretty entertaining flick.

  • Theresa

    I am the same way! I always have weird dreams and watching scary movies just makes them worse. Which kind of sucks around Halloween time…

  • magdalune

    Yep, I’ve read that, and it’s an excellent analysis of slashers, even without the feminist slant.

  • Zanashay

    Sorry I don’t have any suggestions for you but I just had to say OMG I LOVE The Descent!!! I too love horror movies and agree it’s hard to find ones you can enjoy without trying to ignore all the sexist things that piss you off while you watch it.
    Happy Halloween!

  • gwyllion

    OK – i am an avid horrorlover since a wee lass – 2 GREATS are (and both are in my top 50 films of all time)
    1. The Haunting (original version) GREAT female characters lesbian subtext (Claire Bloom & Julie Harris)-CREEPY as HELL
    2. Don’t Look Now – one of the most erotic sex scenes ever, creepy beyond belief, and an ending that will devastate you – profoundly atmospheric – great cast (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as the grieving parents) you will never be able to visit Venice ever again without a cold chill from this movie creeping up your neck.
    oh yeah and the original silent Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

  • Judith Jewcakes

    Ooh, plus, whether or not Stephen King intended it this way, Carrie’s mother is a great representation of the religious right’s woman-hating and obsession with controlling women’s bodies.

  • Caitlin

    I wholeheartedly agree with The Orphanage being a must-see, but be aware that it is in Spanish with English subtitles – just in case subtitles aren’t your thing. I’m thrilled that this movie is rising from obscurity!
    Another psychological thriller worth noting on this list is “The Others” – some call it a blatant rip of off the sixth sense, but an adequately spooky movie nonetheless with a minimal of gore. The atmosphere is deliciously creepy without ever being over-the-top or cliched, and the performance by Nicole Kidman is top notch.
    And don’t forget Alfred Hitchcock when it comes to movies/directors who completely shy away from the cliches of horror movies- Vertigo, The Birds, Rear Window, Psycho, etc. may be dated are still outrageously creative and suspenseful.

  • ShelbyWoo

    That was the ending I saw here in the States. It was a DVD – so, maybe we got the director’s cut or something. I had no idea there was another ending (I’m guessing it was some fluffy, happily-ever after crap) and I can’t imagine another one but the one we both saw – it totally freaked me out, but it fit the movie well.

  • Judith Jewcakes

    Love The Ring, especially with the protagonist being a strong-headed woman. What would make it perfect is if they didn’t imply that because Rachel is successful, she’s neglectful (see cell-phone-at-parent-teacher-conference scene, son-makes-own-lunch-and-walks-himself-to-school scene, blah blah). A- though. Scares the shite out of me.

  • katrina_holloway

    i loved the ring, but it traumatised me for at least 3 weeks! plus i had an exchange student sleeping in my bedroom when i saw it, so i was sleeping in the living room, with the tv right in front of my bed!! it freaked me out, i had to get a towel over it, i couldn’t sleep.

  • Alan

    You might be wary of David Lynch because every man on the universe watches his Mulholland Dr. specifically for the lesbian sex scene. I don’t know if you could really call David Lynch feminist or non-feminist either way.
    That being said…if you’re into horrifying, psychological thrillers I watched the Lynch movie LOST HIGHWAY alone in my bed at 3 AM a couple of weeks ago and I am still recovering. It’s not your traditional horror movie, but it really gets under your skin.
    Here’s a taste:

  • katrina_holloway

    i remember another movie i loved: wild zero. it’s a japanese B-movie (jap. with english subtitles), with the main themes being rockabilly, explosions, and zombies (among other things). there’s a drinking game on the DVD; the whole thing is hilarious :D

  • Judith Jewcakes

    Ooh man, I have huge beef with Emily Rose. Sort of from a feminist perspective (smart girl goes to college and gets Satanified, her protectors are some dude and a priest) but mostly from a stop-Hollywoodizing-mental-illness perspective. Everyone should read up a bit on Anneliese Michel, the young woman the movie is “based on,” and you will be filled with disgust for Hollywood. When it came out I kept hearing, “But they tell the story from both sides!” No, they just have an obnoxious prosecuting attorney as the only voice of reason, and we’re supposed to ignore him ’cause the defense attorney is haunted at 3 a.m. and we know what THAT means.
    Not directed at you, Ikkin, I had a lot of friends who liked the movie plenty.