It’s February, which means love is in the air, and fortunately for us, the horror genre is abundant with sex and romance. However, despite so many of these films becoming classics, the female characters have often been given very narrow roles to play. The virgin and the whore. The good girl and the bad girl. As women in the real world, we’re forced to live under these extreme dichotomies, and in too many instances, the characters in horror play right along with these tropes.
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In the Val Lewton-produced Cat People, for example, Irena is convinced she’s under a deadly curse, one that will destroy her and those she loves if she allows herself to express sexual desire in any way. As such, she’s terrified to show affection to her new groom Oliver. Meanwhile, as Irena becomes increasingly erratic, Oliver turns to another woman for consolation: his coworker Alice. As it turns out, Alice is the quintessential good girl: loyal, steady, and quietly in love with Oliver. She isn’t over-the-top or at all passionate with her affections. Irena, on the other hand, is desperately trying to control her passions. When the curse is unleashed against her will, the film makes it clear that there’s only one thing waiting for her: a prompt and untimely end. Irena’s sexuality becomes her undoing, and naturally, Oliver and good girl Alice live happily ever after.
Another perennial romantic favorite this time of year, Bram Stoker’s Dracula follows the good girl and bad girl script to a tee. The same as its source material, the film sets a rigid standard for its two female characters: Mina is the demure and dutiful partner, while Lucy is wanton and willful and quite frankly, a lot of fun. In the end, Mina lives, and Lucy dies, another undeniable reinforcement of the same old trope.
Fast forward a decade or two, and you’ve still got the same dynamic. High school is hell, but it’s especially hell for women, and even in films that otherwise flip the script, the dynamic of bad girl versus good girl has a tendency of resurfacing. Despite being rightfully hailed as feminist icons in horror, Jennifer’s Body and Ginger Snaps still use the same tired dichotomy with their main characters. Practically overnight—and through no fault of their own—Jennifer and Ginger become monstrous and powerful and quintessential bad girls, feeding off the boys in their small-town high schools. Meanwhile, as their good girl counterparts, both Needy and Brigitte spend the bulk of the films trying to fix what Jennifer and Ginger are gleefully destroying. While Jennifer and Ginger are chaos incarnate, prepared to undermine the status quo in pursuit of what they want, Needy and Brigitte represent order, as they desperately try to keep more mayhem from happening around them.
Then, of course, there’s the nearly identical finales of the films. Both Jennifer and Ginger might be the title characters, but that doesn’t mean they get to survive the third act. Like most genres, horror films make a point of loathing any woman who comes across as vain or conscious of her own appeal. These two girls have come into their power, dressing the way they want and pursuing whatever men they desire, but they’re not allowed to enjoy the spoils of their havoc. Instead, punishment is the only order of the day, and each of them dies at the hands of the one person they trust most: Needy and Brigitte. Ultimately, this type of narrative too often turns out the same: the good girl triumphs, and the bad girl is left as a bloodied corpse.
That being said, there are certainly romantic horror films that break this mold. The Love Witch is a delightful—and at times devastating—take on the lengths women are expected to go to in order to find love. Feminist to the max, the protagonist Elaine is fully committed to attracting the man of her dreams, even if she has to leave behind a body count to do it. The audience sees her joy and her desperation, and even as she uses her sexuality as both a tool and a weapon throughout the film, the story never treats her as being anything other than a fully-realized character. Likewise, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night allows the eponymous and nameless Girl to convey a wide breadth of conflicting emotions, from desire and loneliness to rage and even hope—and despite the fact that she’s a murderous vampire, the film rarely seems to be judging her for it. Instead, she’s a product of her bleak and nearly apocalyptic environment, and she’s doing what she must to survive.
Nevertheless, in horror cinema as well as literature, the trope of the virgin and the whore is still alive and well today. Despite the fact that we’re in the twenty-first century, we often don’t allow women to be fully formed characters, the same way we don’t allow women in real life to be fully formed human beings. The moment you can prove a woman has ever done anything “wrong,” she immediately becomes the bad girl, the one who can’t be trusted. The one you’ve got to take down. Because we all know a mean girl has got to be exposed; it’s our duty to call her out, isn’t it?
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But here’s the thing: no one is sugar and spice and everything nice all the time. Even the kindest people in the world have the capacity for occasional cruelty. To forbid women from being able to make a mistake—or ever being able to step outside the narrow bounds we’ve assigned them—is to deny us our most basic humanity. As we continue to make space in the genre for new voices, hopefully we’ll also make room for new forms of storytelling in horror. Then perhaps, all female characters will finally be given the complexity of being the bad girl, the good girl, and everything in between.