Throughout both my academic and professional career, I’ve been known for my criticisms of representation in film and other media. I have several research papers, official articles, and a persnickety podcast under my belt to attest to the fact that, when portrayals border on offensive or lazy, I’m physically incapable of letting it go.
I think one thing most people can (or should be able to) agree on is that, when it comes to the horror genre, women have gotten a pretty raw deal, historically. It’s become a trope and a long running joke that, if a woman is on screen naked, she’s sure to be the next one to die. Beyond even that indignity, audiences can pretty much count on the fact that any woman in a horror film who comes off as even vaguely promiscuous isn’t going to make it out alive. There are more horror movies than I can count on both hands that either utilize the threat of or brutally depict rape. I’ll be the first to say that things are improving every day, but it’s certainly a disheartening foundation to look back on if you identify as a woman.
However, when it comes to female villains in horror movies, even my harshly critical brain quivers with delight. Across most forms of media and genres, the villains are where the portrayals of minorities, oppressed communities, and societal underdogs tend to stray the most into offensive stereotypes. Yet when it comes to women in horror, villainy is where us ladies tend to soar.
Putting the "bad" in bad girl
Maybe it’s because fear is a great equalizer. Maybe it’s because female villainy in horror is wish fulfillment of unfettered feminine rage. Maybe it’s all one big coincidence. But regardless of the whys, female horror villains are just the coolest.
But putting my blanket seal of approval aside, there are certainly some female villains that are a little more lackluster than others. A film like I Spit on Your Grave—the original (1978) or the remake (2010), take your pick—ascribes to the worst villain trope imaginable. In this revenge horror film, writer Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton/Sarah Butler) wreaks bloody and disturbing vengeance upon a group of men who brutally raped her. Regardless of whether or not you feel comfortable calling a woman in such circumstances the villain of the film, her motivations are certainly strong. But any level of sexual violence as a central plot device is weak if it doesn’t get into the deep, long-lasting complexities of the psychological trauma attached to the ordeal. While I’m sure there are people who find a gory film like this cathartic, villainizing a victim is a no go for me, especially since sexual abuse victims are villainized in courtrooms, police stations, and the news in every day life.
In a sci-fi horror like Species (1995), Sil (Natasha Henstridge) is the very definition of a lazy, one-note female villain. She’s the quintessential femme fatale, a wonder of science attributed to the hubris of male scientists. A creature born of spliced human and alien DNA, all she wants to do is mate to populate her species. She’s intelligent and wily, but mainly sexy. Because all she wants to do is have sex. For evil. She’s simultaneously a victim of attempted rape, an attempted rapist, and a woman who fakes a rape claim. It’s like someone sat down and asked themselves, “How do you make sex scary?” and then picked all the worst ideas. To put it academically: she sucks.
Killing with care
Fortunately, the groan-worthy female villains of horror are far less common than the gripping and multi-faceted female villains of the genre. One of the most iconic female villains of all time is Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) of Friday the 13th (1980). She’s often overlooked in the grand scheme of things in favor of her son, Jason, who reigns as the villain in subsequent films in the franchise. But in an over-the-top, violent early slasher full of seemingly senseless murder, Mrs. Voorhees reasserts sense. Kind of.
Her motivations for revenge are fueled by the fact that camp counselors’ neglect led to her son’s death. These motivations get flimsy when she starts taking it out on people who weren’t even remotely involved in the incident. But I have no qualms with an unhinged villain, especially when it's a distraught mother who takes things too far. And the backstory tying the brutality to an act of a mother’s love is so fresh and intriguing that it’s a concept pointedly referenced in Scream 2 with Mrs. Loomis.
Related: 12 Most Badass Women in Horror
The Chinese film Dream Home (2010) taps into this same sense of familial love turned twisted obsession. Cheng Lai-sheung (Josie Ho) had a difficult childhood, watching her family and friends being evicted from their homes so developers could build something grander and more expensive. Her obsession with a “dream home” comes with her initial vow to one day buy an apartment for her parents so they never have to worry. Unfortunately, illness takes her mother before that promise is fulfilled. And financial trouble alongside her father’s own failing health begins to take its toll.
The price on her dream home has been raised as she arrives to finalize the deal, and there’s no reasonable way she can afford it. Perhaps capitalism is the true villain of this film… but also Lai-sheung, since she starts to murder her would-be neighbors in order to lower the value of her ideal apartment.
No matter how brutal or unjustified the actions of these killers turn out to be, this driving force of “love” is very interesting. At the heart of the concept of femininity is the idea that women are natural caretakers—warm, loving, and nurturing. Having a film turn that on its head and weaponize it is an intriguing subversion.
Stereotypes gone right
On the other hand, you have female villains with motives that are less pure at their center. Though an adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name, a conversation about female villainy in horror movies would be incomplete without Misery’s (1990) Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). In her Oscar-winning performance, Kathy Bates portrays a woman who is a nurse by trade. This iconic staple of the “nurse as torturer” trope is similar to the above examples referring to a mother’s love, but rather than caretaking being Annie’s motive, it merely allows her to wield the tools of her trade.
The “number one fan” of Paul Sheldon’s (James Caan) romance novels, Annie isn’t too happy with the death of her favorite character. And while Annie Wilkes might embody some of those characteristics often disparagingly ascribed to women—uptight, frigid, controlling—her character is so singularly and deeply unhinged that it’s impossible to see her as a reflection of her gender.
In that same vein, there’s the 1999 Japanese horror film Audition. Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) is one of the more gruesome villains on this list, carrying out acts of dismemberment, murder, and torture. She meets middle-aged widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) at a fake audition he intends to use to find a wife. Aoyama is immediately taken by her beauty, but Asami has a shockingly dark past.
Asami wants all of Aoyama’s love—even that which he holds for his late wife and teenage son. When she feels she’s been spurned by having to share affections, she inflicts torture upon Aoyama—much like the victim before him—because, “Words create lies. Pain can be trusted.” This film leans into the stereotypes of painting women as jealous and clingy, but, like Misery, does so in a way that’s so exaggerated it no longer reflects reality.
My teen angst has a body count
One of my favorite flavors of female villainy is the teenaged baddie. From the meek protagonist turned deadly antagonist Carrie White to the manipulative and murderous Mandy Lane, teenage girls as villains tend to touch on the topics of unhealthy peer relations, budding sexuality, and the objectification and belittling of young women.
One of the best examples of this occurs in one of my favorite horror comedy flicks, Jennifer’s Body (2009). While Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) was never a particularly nice girl, she started out as a relatively normal one. When the indie band Low Shoulder—headed up by frontman Nikolai (Adam Brody)—attempts to sacrifice her as a virgin in exchange for their success, their ritual goes awry. Since Jennifer wasn’t actually a virgin, she comes back as a demonic succubus who feeds on the flesh of teenage boys.
While you can’t really be on Jennifer’s side through this (even if I personally want to be), Diablo Cody’s screenplay offers motifs of destructive insecurity, juvenile self-absorption, and burgeoning queerness tangled up in damaging internalized homophobia. Having had to live through the harrowing experience of being a teenage girl myself, the situation really is a breeding ground for evil. But thoughtful movies like this—with an incredible performance from Fox—highlight the very real issues young women are faced with, even if they're interspersed with sexy murder and a fun soundtrack.
At the end of the day, there’s something about female horror villains that’s very freeing. In a world where women aren’t taken seriously while they're simultaneously made out to be the bad guy in many situations, it’s nice to be able to turn on the TV and see both women who refuse to be ignored and women who reassert just how controlling you aren’t. Beyond that, whereas other genres across mediums would suffer in terms of quality for leaning so heavily into stereotypes and preconceived notions about femininity, horror is, in a way, absolved from that negative baggage.
Horror always has and always will be a reflection of society, and in that, female villains in horror showcase how the expectations of womanhood imposed upon individuals can be damaging—even if the one doing the damage is a woman herself. And if I’m honest, in a genre which has greatly benefited from exploiting violence against women, there’s a large part of me gratified to see women be some of the perpetrators.