One of the many things I love about horror is that it’s one of the few genres where women have agency. In horror movies women have as many lines as men, female characters have become increasingly complex (and kick ass) instead of just suffering from “damsel in distress” syndrome, and some are so terrifying that they’ve been iconic for decades. Don’t believe me? Grab a seat and some popcorn, hand in a doctor’s note that you don’t suffer from a heart condition, and let’s get started.
1) Carrie (Carrie)
Not only is there a Carrie in every high school class, but most of us have had at least some experience with being bullied as a teen. Here the horror isn’t so much that Carrie uses telekinetic powers to exact revenge as it is about the toxicity of adolescent culture. Sissy Spacek delivers an amazing performance that yields sympathy as she also builds ticking-time-bomb suspense that culminates in one of the most ghastly cinematic images ever. Every moment, up to the very last “gotcha,” feels believable and real. And I highly doubt that any prom queen since Stephen King’s novel or the film based on it hasn’t quickly glanced up at the lights to make sure a bucket isn’t hanging there.
2) Kayako (The Grudge)
While the character of Samara Morgan in the American version of The Ring and Kayako Saeki of The Grudge are both deliciously terrifying as vengeful ghosts, Kayako left me stunned. At the end I said, “This is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen,” a sentiment echoed by my eight-year-old son, who was surreptitiously watching while pretending to be asleep on the couch (#MomFail). Kayako’s jerky movements and grotesque facial expressions are evocative of the creepy, Japanese modern dance form Butoh, and her relentless pursuit of anyone who enters her house is the embodiment of evil incarnate.
3) Amelia (The Babadook)
Ah, the joys of motherhood. Or not. Amelia in The Babadook isn’t exactly loving her life, but then being a widow and the mother of a son with behavior problems will do that to you. You’re completely sympathetic as she tries to wrangle her child away from his increasing absorption with a very strange book—that is, until she tries to kill him. Her unraveling leads you to question all the assumptions you started with, and the complexities of motherhood adds a layer of everyday realness to the supernatural drama as it unfolds.
4) Annie, Charlie, and Ellen (tie) (Hereditary)
Rivalries between women—especially between mothers and daughters—isn’t supposed to happen, but that wasn’t always the case, especially if you look at the original fairy tales. It was Snow White’s mother, not her stepmother, who wanted to kill her, and the prince’s mother in Sleeping Beauty wanted to eat her grandchildren. Maybe that’s why the trifecta of damaged women in Hereditary feels so familiar, like a fairy tale that’s gone off the rails. Ellen, even though she’s dead, is a palpable, ominous presence throughout; Ellen’s daughter Annie is an unreliable protagonist who, like Amelia in The Babadook, careens close to madness, and Annie’s poor daughter, Charlie, never has a chance. It’s a creepy mix that leaves you guessing until the extraordinarily horrific end.
5) Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction)
While not many remember that Fatal Attraction was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, no one can forget Glenn Close’s seething, visceral performance as the woman scorned—I won’t be ignored, Dan! Leaving aside the feminist critique (really, it’s the wife who has to kill her?), epic shoulder pads, and stereotypes of mental illness, Alex is formidable as the stalker who just won’t go away, and embodies the inevitable violence that follows. Thirty years later it’s a story that could be ripped from today’s headlines, which makes it relevant, and newly terrifying.
Now that I hope I’ve gotten you in the mood for more terror, check out my horror titles Dead Souls and The Nightmarchers!