“Hippolita, his wife, an amiable lady, did sometimes venture to represent the danger of marrying their only son so early, considering his great youth, and greater infirmities; but she never received any other answer than reflections on her own sterility, who had given him but one heir.” — The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole
That description comes on the first page of The Castle of Otranto, the seminal work by Horace Walpole that not only announced the arrival of the Gothic novel, but could conceivably be thought of as also the first major contemporary horror novel. In some respects, the novel is surprising — near that same beginning, a gigantic helmet falls surreally out of the sky — but its attitude toward its female characters is familiar: They serve as mothers (who are defined by their failure to conceive), wives, daughters, and victims.
Fortunately, horror fiction in the twenty-first century has expanded past those traditional roles (remember when the catch-phrase “You’ve come a long way, baby” referred to a cigarette targeted at women?). Along the way, the most interesting horror fiction has reflected society’s changing views . . . and in a few cases (see below), may even have helped push those changes.
The greatest of the Gothic writers, Ann Radcliffe, redefined the genre forever by centering her stories around young, smart heroines who typically find themselves placed under the thrall of tyrannical aristocrats until they escape with the help of a beloved suitor whom they finally wed. In her masterpiece The Mysteries of Udolpho, Radcliffe describes her protagonist Emily as a young woman of learning, who was educated by her father: “He gave her a general view of the sciences, and an exact acquaintance with every part of elegant literature. He taught her Latin and English, chiefly that she might understand the sublimity of their best poets. She discovered in her early years a taste for works of genius; and it was St. Aubert’s principle, as well as his inclination, to promote every innocent means of happiness. ‘A well-informed mind,’ he would say, ‘is the best security against the contagion of folly and of vice . . .’” Critics have suggested that Radcliffe’s fiction actually reinforced social mores at a time when much European society was in upheaval; in essence, her endings — when the heroines settled down to serene domesticity — salved anxieties raised throughout the stories.
Mary Shelley may have been a radical feminist in her real life, but feminist themes are, at best, veiled in her 1818 classic Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus. Contemporary critics have suggested that the tale of a scientist who creates a monster-man from dead parts may have been Mary’s response to the death of her own baby. Scholar Mary Poovey has also read Frankenstein as being partly about Shelley’s own fear of self-assertion. Shelley had, after all, first published the novel anonymously, which caused later critics to suggest that some of it may have been written by her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley (in response to that suggestion, Mary responded, “I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world”). It would take 1935’s movie classic The Bride of Frankenstein to add a feminist switch to the monster’s story — in the end, the Bride rejects (in no uncertain terms) her role as the monster’s mate.
The two greatest American dark fantasists, Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, take almost opposite views on women as characters (and probably in their real lives as well). Poe’s romantic obsessions are well-known; nearly half of his poems center on women, and his fiction tends to idolize them . . . almost literally, as in “Ligeia” (1838), for example, where he describes the eponymous heroine in a paragraph that also references “the misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt.”
Lovecraft, on the other hand, is often cited as having written only one piece that featured a prominent female character — “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1937) — and in that story, Asenath Waite seems to embody the author’s own fears about the fairer sex, as when he notes that “. . . she would frighten her schoolmates with leers and winks of an inexplicable kind . . .”
If Lovecraft and Poe seem to describe women more through their own personal relationships than through society’s, most of the famous works from the late-nineteenth century seem to veer more toward the latter.
Take, for example, Professor Van Helsing’s admiration for Mina in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897): “Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain — a brain that a man should have were he much gifted — and a woman’s heart.” Stoker tells us that Mina is extraordinary in Victorian society by possessing masculine intelligence, which she indeed demonstrates throughout the novel (much of which is drawn from her journals).
Henry James, in 1898’s The Turn of the Screw, offers up a heroine who chafes against her societal constraints: Not long after she arrives at the estate where she begins looking after two children, the governess notes, “I learned something — at first, certainly — that had not been one of the teachings of my small, smothered life; learned to be amused, and even amusing, and not to think for the morrow. It was the first time, in a manner, that I had known space and air and freedom . . .” Consider that in 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed in Great Britain, indicating a society where women’s roles were in flux.
It’s probably no exaggeration to say that no author so profoundly influenced the roles of women in horror literature in the twentieth century as Shirley Jackson. Women are at the heart of much of her fiction, and are described as fully-rounded, very human characters. Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House features, near the novel’s beginning, this description of its female lead: “Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends. This was owing largely to the eleven years she had spent caring for her invalid mother, which had left her with some proficiency as a nurse and an inability to face strong sunlight without blinking. She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair.” Note that, with the sole exception of a brief mention of her brother-in-law, Eleanor is defined by her relationships to other women and by her hatred . . . a far cry, in other words, from Ann Radcliffe’s Emily, a daughter who possessed “a captivating grace.”
The 1970s saw an America caught in the throes of various civil rights movements, and a Hollywood breathing new, socially-aware life into genre films. Suddenly, the women in horror films were no longer helpless victims who fled in terror until stumbling over those ubiquitous tree roots. In 1978’s Halloween, director John Carpenter instead endowed his plucky “final girl” with determination and the ability to fight back with minimal male assistance (she is finally aided by an armed psychiatrist, always a dangerous figure). But even more important was the character of Ellen Ripley in 1979’s Alien; never before had a heroine in a horror film been so focused, so strong, and so resolute (to say nothing of protecting a cat). Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of the character made her seem both Amazonian and believable, and forever recreated the role of women in horror/science fiction. Did the Ripley effect spread beyond genre cinema as well? Critics like Jordan Poast (in Cultural Transmogrifier Magazine) have called Alien “one of the most politically progressive films ever made,” and noted that “the film blazed trails for female protagonists to lay claim to the male-centered cinema that had reigned since the inception of motion pictures, including the most entrenched forms, the action genres.”
By the mid-’80s, it was acceptable for female protagonists in horror to be thought of primarily as working professionals. Consider Clarice Starling from Thomas Harris’s 1988 bestseller The Silence of the Lambs. On the first page, Starling is described this way: “She had grass in her hair and grass stains on her FBI Academy windbreaker from diving to the ground under fire in an arrest problem on the range.” Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1991 film further reinforced the image of female lead as a no-nonsense woman of action.
If there was a trilogy of horror action heroines beginning with Ripley and segueing through Starling, surely the triumvirate would be topped off by Buffy Summers, a bubbly, blonde California girl who is actually a supernaturally-empowered vampire slayer. Beginning in 1997, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer offered a weekly dose of female empowerment to both younger women and a legion of older fans. The cultural bombshell of Buffy probably led to the rise of the paranormal romance and urban fantasy genres, which typically feature strong young women surrounded by monsters (and romantically entangled with at least one of them).
As much as Buffy boosted the image of women in the horror genre, another phenomenon was about to attempt to supplant some of that newly-gained power: “Torture porn” cinema (and its literary equivalent, “extreme fiction”). Movies like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) gained a reputation for brutal depictions of rape, mutilation, and murder, and although victims were members of both genders, as critic Kira Cochrane noted in The Guardian, “The publicity campaigns for many of these films flag up the prospect of watching a nubile young woman being tortured as a genuinely pleasurable experience.” Since the rise of torture porn, horror has had a tough time shaking off its image as misogynistic.
By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, horror fiction began to increasingly explore how women were more subtly victimized and subjected to culturally-approved sexism. These novels and stories are almost entirely by female authors and feature carefully-drawn and anxious heroines. Take this scene, for example, that comes near the beginning of Sarah Langan’s 2009 novel Audrey’s Door, as Audrey gets into an elevator with a middle-aged apartment super: “Edgardo’s entire neck craned as his eyes grazed the v-neck of Audrey’s loose blouse, her small breasts, hunched shoulders, and at last, her stark, green eyes. When he was done, his gaze settled on her bare, scarred-up fingers. Then he winked, to let her know he liked what he saw . . . She frowned. She was thirty-five years old, with a good job and a decent head on her shoulders. Still, when she spotted strangers looking for that ring, she felt . . . exposed.”
Perhaps no one has explored the dread women can experience in seemingly the most innocuous of circumstances than Joyce Carol Oates. Her 2011 short story “The Good Samaritan” centers on a college student who tries to return a lost wallet discovered on a train. What she finds instead of a grateful wallet owner is the owner’s handsome husband, who is frantic about the disappearance of his wife. On the second floor of the couple’s home, the young woman becomes all too aware of the husband’s size: “I saw the doorway; the stairs was just beyond. If necessary, I could run — I could run to the stairs . . . The man would outrun me, I knew.”
As more women authors enter the horror genre (and evidence in everything from self-published bestseller lists to awards rosters to anthology table of contents suggests this is indeed happening), and as male authors continue to explore the changing roles of women, we can only hope that female protagonists will become so common and varied that it will be virtually impossible to survey them in even the lengthiest of academic tomes. At least heroines really have come a long way, baby, from being defined by their failure to bear children.
• • • •
As a sidebar to this article, I asked horror authors of both genders to tell me about their favorite female protagonist in a book or movie. Do the comments reveal a difference between the way men and women perceive female protagonists? I think what we can answer without hesitation is that Ellen Ripley was the hands-down winner with both sexes.
- “My mom has always been the most influential woman in my life. She raised three daughters on her own while dealing with a lack of knowledge in regards to American culture and the English language. During the roughest of times, my oldest sister dated and befriended the rabble of our neighborhood against my mother’s wishes. These losers often terrorized my mom on the streets while she drove to and from our house. Instead of living in fear, she took them on and beat them at their own games. I knew then I wanted to be a strong woman like her.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson was a book I bought around the same time, because the cover art reminded me of myself — a girl with long, dark hair looking through a fence at a hostile, outside world. Little did I know how much that girl would influence my life, and become a part of who I am today.
Merricat Blackwood was a badass. Like me, she lived in isolation away from others because she and what remained of her family didn’t quite fit in. She trusted in her magic to keep her and her sister safe. I pretended I did the same, and it gave me a sense of strength to get through some trying times.
Like my mom, I couldn’t hide my dislike for the neighborhood bullies so they often picked on me. Even my own sister would join them sometimes. I could very much relate to Merricat’s situation. Charles trying to make the moves on Constance was like the thugs preying on my naïve older sister, and she not seeing them for their true intentions.
It wasn’t until after I’d read the book that I realized my true strength came from knowledge. I was smarter than most of the people on the other side of the fence I looked out at and feared. The realization that I would grow up and surpass them made me even stronger. This newfound wisdom made the remainder of my days there tolerable.
Eventually, my family moved on and left all that behind, but I knew no matter where we went we’d always have each other like Merricat and Constance. In the end life improved, and people started coming around.” — Rena Mason, author of The Evolutionist and East End Girls
- “I so wanted to answer Buffy. Absolutely love her. She’s tough, fearless, and imminently capable, yet wounded and scared and hopelessly at odds with herself and her station in life. But every time I tried to make myself believe she was my answer, I kept coming back to Eleanor Vance, from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. At first blush Eleanor seems to be such a wallflower, and hardly the kind of heroine that attracts a great deal of interest, but I’ve read Hill House perhaps ten times over the years, and listened to it on audio three times, and each time I walk away with a completely different take on who she is. Eleanor is a cipher, for me at least. I think I know her, I think I get her, and then the next time I read her, I realize I was all wrong. I guess that’s what I love about her, that she isn’t easy.” — Joe McKinney, author of Dog Days and Plague of the Dead
- “I’m gonna have to go with Stretch (Caroline Williams) in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. As scripted by Hooper and L.M. ‘Kit’ Carson (the man who wrote us Paris, Texas), she’s sharp, funny, no-nonsense, and full of life. But when the chainsaw hits the fan, midway through, her talking-down of the smitten Leatherface is Rape Deflection 101; and when she winds up doing the screaming chainsaw dance at the end, covered in blood, it’s not the first film’s escape into madness. It’s a motherfucking triumph.” — John Skipp, author/editor/filmmaker
- “Dolores Claiborne is probably the most real of all horror’s female characters. Want proof? ‘Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto.’” — Rocky Wood, author of Stephen King: A Literary Companion
And as for myself . . . I have an odd fondness for Sarah from George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead. In the face of apocalypse, the ultimate dilemma is thrust upon her: as possibly the last human woman alive, does she fly off to a paradise and “make some babies” with the empathetic helicopter pilot, or does she continue to function as maybe the last scientist smart enough to solve the zombie crisis? Women have had to choose between biological imperative/intellectual yearning throughout history, but I don’t think that’s been articulated so well anywhere else in the horror genre. The fact that Sarah can also tell off dimwits with catty scientific-sounding insults didn’t hurt, either.
Spread the word!