February is Women in Horror Month. As an idea, it's only been around for seven years, but it's still a cool notion -- celebrating all the women in this little genre of ours. And, for me, it's a perfect opportunity to return to a topic near and dear to my heart -- female villains in horror.
Way, way back in October, I started telling you about an interesting trend that developed regarding women villains in the horror genre starting around the 1980s. It was pretty interesting, you should read it.
But, just in case you'd rather start here, this is the gist -- there is a tendency in modern horror toward showing female villains as sympathetic, while their male counterparts are portrayed as a more absolute evil. Think of the difference in portrayal between Pamela and Jason Voorhees and you've got the general idea.
Last time I wrote on this topic, I focused on slashers and how themes within that subgenre impact villains based on gender. This time, let's look at supernatural ladies as well as aliens. We might even talk about the portrayal of real-life killers! But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
CARRIE, JENNIFER'S BODY, AND THE SUPERNATURAL WOMEN OF HORROR
The only universally known female villain who predates Pamela Voorhees (but still fits the sympathetic mold) almost doesn't even belong on this list, because it's hard to see Carrie as a villain. Carrie's mother is abusive by way of religious extremism, her peers are abusive by way of bullying, and no matter how hard she tries to be left alone, Carrie faces torment seemingly every second of every day. Carrie's burgeoning sexuality takes on a supernatural element when she gains the power of telekinesis. This new ability acts as parallel and analogue for Carrie's sexuality as the latest thing her mother and her classmates use to shame her.
Carrie's story is one of shame and ridicule, primarily through the lens of her femininity. She is either not pretty enough (as judged by her peers) or not pure enough (as judged by her mother). Like all women who struggle to navigate the virgin/whore dichotomy, Carrie faces a losing battle.
Even Carrie's telekinetic power is just as much curse as it is a gift. On the one hand, it can protect her from external dangers, but it also enables Carrie's rage. When she is betrayed by her date at the prom, Carrie, covered in pig's blood and overwhelmed by the mockery and shaming from all those around her, changes from victim to villain. Carrie kills but also can't quite stop herself. Her power both gives and takes away her control.
What about Carrie, that is within the text itself, is unsympathetic? Nothing, really. In fact, you could even argue that many people would have done the same given that kind of power. Even when supernatural powers are introduced, our female killers still seem to remain sympathetic. But the narrative shifts away from her point of view once she starts killing toward the girl who would survive Carrie's attack. So, ultimately, Carrie is a villain in her own story. The structure of Carrie dictates that she's still in the wrong, and her death shows that, despite her telekinetic strength, she is still weak.
Carrie's mostly sympathetic portrayal carries with it a consequence that we'll see again and again -- to be worthy of empathy, female villains most give up much of their strength and agency.
Let's look at a more modern example to illustrate this point further. We've been talking about movies which are almost all 30 years old or more. What about 2009's Jennifer's Body which, upon release, was the subject of much feminist debate? What happens when two women, one "good girl" and one "bad girl", occupy the same film equally? Can the female villain still remain at all sympathetic?
Jennifer's Body is about how an unlikely friendship turns toxic due to, at least in part, the role women play as sexual objects for men. On the one end you have the sweet but dweeby Needy, and on the other you have the naughty but popular girl, Jennifer. The twist? They're best friends. While the story doesn't shy away from Jennifer's tendency to push Needy out of her comfort zone, the narrative portrays that trait as more ambigious than sinister. Jennifer means well. So, her sympathy remains intact so far.
Unfortunately, Jennifer's good intentions lead her and Needy to a club where bad guy rockers kidnap Jennifer and get her possessed by a demon (a code for rape, if ever their was), so their band can become successful in return. We don't know much about these characters other than they are selfish and don't value Jennifer beyond her sexuality (they think she's a virgin pretending to be experienced).
From here, Jennifer becomes a succubus who kills and devours her male prey. At first, we lose all connection with Jennifer as the POV of the movie transfers completely to Needy. During the course of the story, however, Jennifer, much like Pamela, Angela, and Carrie tends to kill those who she feels deserve it -- the jerky jocks, the catcalling bros, and the like. One person Jennifer doesn't seem to want to kill is Needy. In fact, Jennifer seems to be in love, or at least in lust, with Needy. In between trying to engage in sexual congress with Needy, Jennifer, explains that she needs to eat humans to live and that she's doing that by eating people who she doesn't like. In the end, Needy rejects Jennifer's interpretation of what she's doing and kills Jennifer before the killing can continue.
The more Jennifer tries to justify her misdeeds, the less sympathetic she becomes. That said, it's impossible to ignore that Jennifer is primarily evil because she is forcefully possessed by a demon for the betterment of some absolutely unsympathetic, one-dimensional male anatgonists.
Jennifer's story is one of sexual assault coded as demon possession. It is because of the violence visisted on her body that Jennifer becomes so evil. That may not be a justification, but it does explain some of her actions and why Jennifer and Needy's friendship is soured. Again, this is primarily a tale of how hyper sexualization of women to the point of violence can lead to jealous, competition, and even violence between women. Which is all to say that, while certainly still a villain, Jennifer's actions are defined withtin the narrative as somewhat understandable.
But, as with Carrie, the evil within Jennifer is actually born from external forces that she cannot ultimately control. She may in some ays embrace the succubus desires, but she would never have accepted them in the first place. Again, what Jennifer gains in sympathy, she loses in agency. She has power, but not power she would have chosen of her own free will.
FEMALE ALIENS AS OTHER RATHER THAN EVIL
If aliens visited Earth, how would they adapt to our rules, our culture, and our ideas of gender? Horror has dealt with the question of aliens and gender specifically in very interesting and unexpected ways that continue the trend of female villains as sympathetic.
In Species, alien DNA is sent to Earth from unknown origins. Humanity combines the DNA with their own to create a rapidly developing young woman who may or may not be designed to extinguish the entirety of the human race. This alien, dubbed by the scientists observing her as Sil, escapes the lab where she was created, evolves into a form that will be pleasing to the eye, and proceeds to leave a trail of carnage behind her as she attempts to impregnate herself.
Yet despite Sil's pre-programmed design to propogate herself in an effort to take over planet Earth, a trait that should make her entirely evil for the audience, the story repeatedly defines her in sympathetic terms. In her very first scene, Sil is about to be gassed to death because the people who created her have deemed her too dangerous to live without any proof. Our first moments with Species's villain are ones in which she is pleading for her life. Even as Sil kills later, she is repeatedly visited by nightmares of what she is transforming into, nightmares that make her afraid of both humanity and herself.
Again, the trope becomes obvious -- Sil is afraid of her genetic predisposition to kill and even tries to fight it at first. The power she has is not entirely one she wants. Sil is sympathetic, but her agency feels muddy and complicated. How much control over her own actions doe she really have?
While Species specifically front-loads its sympathy for Sil, the more recent film Under the Skin plays a much longer, much more complex, and infinitely more effective game. The alien here, as portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, drives around seeking men in need of a ride and lures them back to her abode, only to trap and slowly kill them.
Under the Skin presents the female gender entirely as veneer at first, with the alien using its false, female skin solely as a means to attract its prey. The longer the alien presents itself with this female avatar, however, the more it is transformed by it, both in its own nature and how the audience perceives it.
At the outset, it is clear that these aliens know very little of humanity. It seems that ease of capture is the reason our villainous protagonist chooses the female form it does. An alien that knows nothing of human society could very easily conclude that, based on how we fixate so much on the attractiveness of women, there would be an innate strength in presenting as female. For the specific purpose of briefly controlling a sexually stimulated man, that's not entirely wrong, but it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding in the actual way much of human society functions.
The beauty of Under the Skin comes in the consequences the alien faces. At first, it kills without remorse but, as time goes on, the alien begins to feel guilt from her actions. In one particularly poignant scene, the alien releases a physically deformed man rather than letting him die. This man has no control over the skin in which he lives. To the world, he looks like a monster, but the alien sees the innocence in the disfigured man. She feels a kinship to him as she begins to realize how this world might treat her if humanity knew what she really looked like.
The alien's story takes its analysis of womanhood even further when, after running from her own kind, the alien goes out with a human man with no motive beyond understanding humanity and herself better. When she is finally put in a space to experience sex, the alien is horrified. The potential dangers of allowing herself to be penetrated simultaneously reveal the anxieties of many human women while also making the alien both more human and sympathetic.
While the alien does kill in bizarre and unsettling ways, it is her own death that is the most horrific. Having seen the evils in herself and the potential for harm from humanity, the alien finds herself in the woods to seek solace. It is here that the alien encounters a man who attempts to rape her, accidentally removing her human skin to reveal an inky blackness beneath in the process. When the man discovers something other than what he expected, he reacts by dousing the alien in gasoline and setting her on fire.
The alien's death reveals as much (if not more) about humanity as it does about her. The more the alien embraces and attempts to understand it's own female skin, the more struggles it faces. Under the Skin is a story about how human society punishes and harms anything coded female. We empathize with the alien as she discovers the daily trauma that comes of living as a woman.
There's also a transgender narrative subtly planted in Under the Skin, as well. The man who rapes and ultimately kills the alien, takes his mortal action as the result of panic. When he sees that the woman isn't quite what she seems, he has a violent reaction because he briefly becomes ovrwhelmed with fear and panic. Juxtaposed to real life, many men who have murdered trans women have used the trans panic defense, essentially saying their actions are the fault of the victim in order to have their cases acquitted. Many times, the trans panic defense has been used succesfully, thus effectively making the victim guilty of their own death.
Under the Skin separates itself from our previous examples in that Johansson's alien does chose the form she's takes and the female-coded power she possesses. It's through experience that she learns the price of being a woman in human society and her ampathy towards that and towards others is why we feel sympathy towards her. It's a subtle difference, but one that, mostly, leaves this female villain's agency intact.
THE RING AND THE EXCEPTION THAT PROVES THE RULE
Over and over again, we've seen that, in some way, most female villains in horror movies are portrayed as relatable or sympathetic. One of the most famous horror movies, however, takes the exact opposite tactic, but in a way that points out just how pervasive the sympathetic female villain has become.
In The Ring (or Ringu, if you're talking about the original Japanese film), a video tape is unleashed into the world and anyone who sees it, dies seven days later. The story focuses on a mother, Rachel, and her attempts to prevent both her and her son's death after watching the infamous tape.
The Ring, at first, seems like a simple investigative tale in which Rachel is trying to understand the origins of the tape. Rachel discovers that the tape was created by the supernatural power of a young girl, Samara, who Rachel believes was adopted, abused, and then killed by her new parents. Rachel believes this so strongly that she uses the video as a map to find Samara's dead body and allows the girl's spirit to find rest.
At this point, The Ring falls perfectly within the sympathetic female villain trope. What first seemed to be a monster, is actually a poor girl who was just trying to find peace.
Of course, The Ring throws in a twist that sets this trope on its ear. Samara isn't innocent at all. In fact, her adoptive parents tried to care for her, but couldn't because she was just too evil. In freeing Samara from her prison, Rachel has inadvertently put the entire world at risk.
There is nothing sympathetic about Samara. Samara just wants to see the world burn and has the power to make it happen. The Ring chooses to make that the twist because the audience has been trained by so many previous horror narratives to believe that a female villain must have an understandable, if not entirely justified, reason for doing evil. Samara has no such motivation and that's what is so shocking and horrifying. She is more like the silent Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees -- she kills because she wants to. She has total agency.
Samara is the exception that proves the rule.
THE REAL-LIFE MONSTER
In the process of looking over women killers in horror, it occurred to me that touching on the fictionalized retellings of real life women killers might also be worth exploring, and it was. Perhaps the most lauded film based on an actual serial killer was 2003's Monster, which starred Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos -- arguably the most well-known and prolific women serial killer.
Aileen, in real life, accused the men she killed of all attempting or succeeding at raping her. As a prostitute, Wuornos faced a lot of doubt on that front. Sex workers are just as capable of being sexually assaulted as anyone, but the fact that she seemed to be criminally insane and that she repeatedly killed her Johns left the courts certain of her guilt. In documentaries and interviews, many people who met and interacted with Aileen describe her as "pure evil".
Theron's portrayal of Wuornos, however, comes across differently. Patty Jenkins, who wrote and directed Monster, shows Aileen in a much more sympathetic light. We see her trying to escape her life as a homeless sex worker. We see Aileen forming a loving bond with her friend and lover (portrayed by Christina Ricci). And, yes, when Aileen kills it is almost always after she is sexually assaulted. The first murder, especially, Aileen commits after a John intends to kill her first.
Jenkins depiction of Aileen Wournos is one of a woman brought to the edge of sanity and driven off that edge by a misogynistic world unwilling to offer her any other choice. She has agency, but her options feel limited tot he point where her becoming a killer is almost understandable. Is that who Aileen really was? Maybe, maybe not. But it is interesting to see this "sympathetic female killer" trope adapted to fictionalized retellings of events that actually occurred.
SOME KIND OF HATE
The reason I started thinking about villains of horror at all was because of a film by writer/director, Adam Egypt Mortimer, call Some Kind of Hate. This horror film takes into account all of the things I've written about (and a ton more that Mortimer and I emailed about over the course of many months). Its villain, Moira, appears as the apparition of a suicide victim. At a camp for troubled youths, she takes her revenge on those who pushed her to emotional extremes through her ability to make her own self-inflicted wounds appear on her victims.
Mortimer's villain is a complex mix of male and female monster tropes. She has some agency, but there's still a lot to her story that makes her relatable. That doesn't make her evil and seemingly unstoppable, though. There's something very Jason and Freddy in Moira's behavior. She can be heartless at one moment, and gleefully malicious the next.
What Moira does seems wrong (and, ultimately, is), but right and wrong become very muddy concepts as Moira and the rest of the camper's stories unfold.
Some Kind of Hate is such a compelling case study in examining female villains of horror, that Mortimer himself was willing to weigh in on the topic. But this article has run so long and I want to make sure what Adam has to say gets your undivided attention, so you'll see his words early next week.
In the meantime, I would recommend watching Some Kind of Hate, which is available on Netflix and Amazon streaming. It's also a Fangoria 2016 Chainsaw Award Nominee for Best Limited Release Film. It's by far the most brutal horror film selected, so it's exciting to see this neat examination of the genre getting the attention I know it deserves.