Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Women Who Kill

by Alejandra Gonzalez
As a faithful fan of horror (and simply as a woman in general), being able to feel accurately represented in the movies I watch has always been of utmost importance to me.

While the notion of “the Final Girl” has for decades made women heroic survivors, I began really thinking about the word “survivor” early on in my horror journey. These women are typically deemed “final girls,” therefore “survivors,” only after having endured extreme victimization at the hands of villains who are usually male characters. What are arguably the world’s most widely known horror movies use this final girl/male villain formula to their advantage, subsequently creating iconic male characters that are amongst the most beloved in the genre: Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Norman Bates. The list goes ever on.

I became thirsty for movies in which women weren’t victims anymore, constantly being portrayed as virginal “good girls” who could only really be as iconic as the male villains they were running away from. That’s when I sought out movies whose villains were monstrous women that weren’t running away from anything, but rather brewing the storm themselves. Women who struck fear in viewers, men and women alike, instead of only sympathy. Because the final girl trope only really shows one facet of womanhood -- the “good ones” -- today we’re celebrating the women who are just as evil as they are iconic.

Jennifer, Jennifer’s Body
Jennifer’s Body is a perfect example of a movie that uses the final girl trope and at the same time has one of the most entertaining and evil female villains in more recent horror. Needy (Amanda Seyfried) is a quiet, insecure girl who represents the perfect final girl, as she is only a victim of what is to come and doesn’t seem to have a bad bone in her body. Her best friend Jennifer (Megan Fox), however, is not only the movie’s monstrous villain but also the star of the show. Jennifer juxtaposes Needy entirely. She not only embraces her sexuality, but uses it to lure in her male victims (whom she devours to perpetuate her evil abilities), as she has been reincarnated as a succubus after being murdered. What makes Jennifer an interesting villain is that her story is ultimately still one of redemption, so we’re sort of rooting for her. She dies at the hands of men and returns to ruthlessly kill them using her feminine sexuality, ultimately seeking out Needy, too. It’s almost as if Jennifer represents the ownership of sexuality and how that is powerful in and of itself, which is something to look up to (without the eating men alive thing, of course). She takes chewing them up and spitting them out to the literal extreme, which makes her one of the greatest female villains of modern horror.

Annie Wilkes, Misery
Being one of the most notable Stephen King adaptations, Misery directly inverses traditional roles between the main characters and has its male protagonist cast as the victim of an incredibly wicked woman. After a near-fatal car accident, author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is rescued by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who just happens to also be an obsessive fan of Paul’s novels. He is bedridden in her care, but when Annie discovers that Paul intends to end her favorite Misery series, she goes absolutely hysterical (to say the least). She puts Paul through Hell, torturing him continuously in efforts to get what she wants. She is largely unsympathetic when she hurts Paul, which is important because there are sometimes instances of emotional hesitation amongst other villainous women in film. Annie Wilkes is probably one of the most horrifying women in horror because there is no real backstory that incites her descent into evil. In fact, it is uncovered that she’s always been murderous and vile. There was no supernatural possession, no traumatizing turning point. She is evil because it is in her nature, which is the scariest evil of all. She represents an aspect of womanhood that is rarely acknowledged in film, which is that women are just as capable of innate evil as anyone because they are, after all, multifaceted human beings.

Baby Firefly, House of 1000 Corpses/ The Devil’s Rejects
Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) is easily among my favorite of the women on this list. There is absolutely nothing scary or evil about her at first glance. On the surface, she's an attractive and flirtatious girl with a bubbly, almost childlike personality that would fool anyone into believing that she is harmless. It's what gets her picked up as a “hitchhiker” by two traveling couples in the first place. What they don't know is that Baby is using her personality to manipulate the group into her home of serial killers. The Firefly family to which Baby belongs mutilates their victims purely as a form of recreational activity. Baby’s manipulation continues in The Devil’s Rejects and proves to be a successful method for her. It's evident that this success is a direct result of her charming personality and sex appeal, despite the fact that she's just as dangerous and vicious as the rest of her family. Baby is the perfect example of how being beautiful and enthusiastically perky on the outside and being bloodthirsty on the inside is not a dichotomy, but that these two qualities are able to exist simultaneously. Often it's one or the other when it comes to female characters in horror, so it's refreshing when we are presented with evil women that are master manipulators like Baby.

Julia Cotton - Hellraiser/Hellbound
In the case of the Hellraiser franchise, who the villain is can be left up to interpretation. Who's to say there has to be just one, anyway? As far as the first two installments go, I would argue that the “bad guy” title doesn't belong to a guy at all, but rather to Julia Cotton (Claire Higgins). Julia proves that even evil men sometimes need an even more evil woman to help them in their murderous ventures. She helps her lover, Frank Cotton (Sean Champman), regenerate himself into human form after he was sent to Hell by sadomasochistic demons (referred to as Cenobites). How does she do this? By the same means Jennifer from Jennifer’s Body uses to lure in her victims, of course. Julia uses her sexuality to seduce vulnerable men that she later sacrifices for blood to help Frank become human again. What makes Julia unique is that while on the surface Frank is considered the villain of this tale, he would have absolutely no way of attaining his power had it not been for Julia being willing to kill for his sake. What makes Julia so powerful is that while she does have the potential to be a moral person, she makes her own choices based on what it is SHE wants, despite how evil it may be. I think that although I may not agree with most things Julia does in Hellraiser and Hellbound, I admire her ability to choose what she wants to do based on her own desires, which makes her an excellent villain.

Carrie, Carrie (1976)
Carrie is absolutely one of the most complex villains of all time. It's strange to even confidently label her as a villain because it's hard to argue that what she does is an act of malicious revenge, as opposed to just an instinctual reaction to her torment. Carrie is a young girl who has been tormented her whole life both at home and at school. Upon getting her first period, she also acquires telekinetic powers that, unbeknownst to her, will change her life forever. Carrie never intends to use her new powers to hurt others, but when her classmates play a cruel joke on her at the prom, her backlash is brutal and almost no one escapes her wrath unharmed. Because we are first introduced to a Carrie that is meek and insecure, we know that her backlash is extremely out of character. This is indicative that Carrie herself is a victim of the “monster” that lives inside of her. She is simultaneously the primary victim AND villain in the film, which is completely unique and (again) sheds light on the complexity of womanhood. It's no coincidence that Carrie only obtains these powers when she gets her period for the first time. Her potentially evil powers represent the start of becoming a woman and a more complex version of herself -- not purely good or evil, but a mixture of both.

Traditional final girls will always have a special place in my heart, but I find that the villainous women of horror are often more accurate representations of what it means to be a woman. The strength of these women comes from their power of choice and choosing the kind of woman they want to be, even if it's an evil one. ​Plus, everyone loves a bad girl.


  1. Great article! Villainous women do tend to be more interesting characters, even if I don't always like them. Ginger Snaps is a good example, too, because Ginger is clearly a murderer, but at the same time, I'm like, yeah, I get you.
    A very similar discussion to this comes up in film noir circles. Are femmes fatale feminist or misogynist? They are almost always punished says the latter, but the former argues this is agency. It depends on the movie of course, but a character who makes choices, even if they're not great is still a character who's three dimensional, and that, I think, is the point, rather than milquetoast "good" role models.

    1. That's exactly what I'm arguing, I think it's about the choice to be whoever you want to be. which is why final girls are still important.If a woman chooses to be "good" and "pure" she's still just as valid as the women mentioned here. To me though, the villainous women represent the kinds of people women sometimes choose to be, which exposes facets of womanhood that aren't always represented

    2. I think the punishment of of femme fatale characters is part of the Hays code with its "immoral characters must be punished" thing. Great article btw. My favourite female horror character may be Diane Selwyn from Mulholland drive. Such a fascinating character treated with so much respect by a great filmmaker.

    3. Thanks!! I love Lynch and the women he centers his work around.

  2. (This is a bit off-topic; ergo, feel free to ignore it/me. Still, it does have to do with female characters and horror, albeit not ones who kill.)

    I'm not a horror fan. I hardly ever watch any flavor of the genre, and while I do love a few exceptions here and there (Psycho, The Mist, It Follows), and can cheer a solid gross-out kill such as the T-1000 stabbing that one guard through the eye) as much as the next moviegoer, I certainly don't seek out movies built around such moments, and it takes both ecstatic reviews and a truly original premise to get me to watch a "horror"-labeled flick. Nor do I fully understand the extent and passion for the genre's fandom often exhibited on this site, but hey, that's fine; I don't need to, and I try not to judge.

    That said, here's the question: I've seen a fair amount of visceral blowback to the death of the corporate assistant woman in Jurassic World. Several people, including our Mr. Bromley, have called it drawn-out, played for laughs, and mean-spirited in the sense that the character in no way deserved such a fate. All of which is inarguable, but what I don't get is: so what? Do the victims in Rob Zombie/slasher/"horror" movies always deserve their fates? Don't horror movies often encourage their audiences to enjoy inventive deaths of relative innocents, and aren't those moments often played for laughs? (Not to say that horror movies don't also both off the wicked for entertainment, and the innocent in ways we're not meant to enjoy, but I'm fairly certain I'm not making things up here.) Or is it posited that, as a family-friendly mainstream adventure movie (albeit one filled with endangered children, slaughtered security personnel, and other background casualties), is Jurassic World not "allowed" to dabble in a bit of slapstick slasher-style death here and there? Is that one scene so far tonally removed from the rest of the movie, and even if it is, does that make it objectionable in a way entire horror franchises and subgenres aren't?

    Thanks for reading. :)

    1. Hi! If I've understood correctly, I do see where you're coming from and it makes sense for you to question why it's okay in horror but slightly objectionable in other genres. Still, I would argue that when you go into a horror movie you would expect death and violence because those are concepts that are experimented with through the genre. And I also would argue that excessive violence in horror still IS indeed criticized a lot of the time even by fans of the genre, especially when it's violence just for the sake of shock value. Either way I think you should maybe open your mind up a little towards this genre. It has such great potential to surprise you

    2. I would postulate that there is a contract we enter into when we see a movie, one that doesn't just have to do with not sneaking one's own snacks into the theatre. Jurassic World breaks the contract with the death of Zara. Of course we know people are going to die in a Jurassic Park film, and there are, I think, three types of death that conform to the action movie covenant: the deserved death (Donald Gennaro and Dennis Nedry in Jurassic Park), the heroic death (Richard Schiff's character in the first sequel), and the death of the innocent bystander (the poor little doggy, again in J to the P to the II).

      Zara's potential-victim status falls into the third category, but she gets a demise deserving of someone in the first. If Vincent D'Onofrio had been the one who suffered this fate, everyone would be fine with it. Zara's only crime was not wanting to babysit the nephews of "Heels" Dearing. This is why it induces such a feeling of queasiness, in my opinion. And it really does. She doesn't just die; she's punished. Action movie justice states that Zara can be killed, but as a relative innocent it can't be too gruesome or prolonged. In Jurassic Park the First, we don't even see Sam Jackson's death, only the aftermath, and we're spared watching Bob Peck get torn to pieces by Velociraptors, leaving him at the moment of "Clever girl."

      Horror movies get to break the contract; fluffy entries in a beloved (?) action movie franchise... not so much, unless they want to be categorised as something else.

      Patrick and others talk on the podcast sometimes about how a lot of American movies nowadays shoehorn in a Chinese character, invariably giving this person bugger all to do, because there's a big market for US films in the People's Republic. Were I a paranoid individual. I might suggest that Zara's death was an attempt to get conservative American (and conservatives of other nationalities) bums on seats. Not only is this woman in the workplace, suggesting she has eschewed the idea of traditional two-and-a-half-children familial life in favour of having a career, but when she is put in charge of a couple of kids she immediately loses them. I can imagine a group of bros in "Make America Great Again" hats nudging each other and saying, "Bitch shoulda stayed at home."

      A great article by Alejandra. I would like to give a shout out to Ingrid Pitt as Elizabeth Báthory in Countess Dracula, one if not the best Hammer Horror movies, and Eihi Shiina as Asami Yamazaki in Audition.

      I'm not entirely sure I agree with the assertion that Annie Wilkes is evil. She's crazy, certainly, and a monster, but I don't know if I would describe her as evil.

  3. "No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell." - Carl Jung.

    Love this article so much, Alejandra! For my whole life I've been fascinated by cute and cheruby, warm, LOVELY women with cold hearts of stone :) And actually I'm more afraid of the ones who commit the less obvious crimes. The kind of crimes people relate to, and they like to gloss over.

    My absolute favorite villain in film is Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She's an extremely complicated, and wholly realistic character IMO. She wanted to sacrifice herself to lead her students to righteousness and romantic martyrdom. The thing that really stands out in the movie is her impact on her student, Sandy, the other main character. Because even if Jean Brodie turns out to be only blind and ignorant, and even if those are relatable flaws, the impact they had on Sandy make her crimes unbearable, because Jean meant so much to Sandy. It's that thing where a woman who is particularly supposed to be a nurturing figure and disguises herself, easily, as a nurturing figure...would use your love for her to hurt you that's really...brutal.