Women in horror films often struggle, and not just against monsters. The genre has had a mixed relationship with how it portrays women within films. Women sometimes come across as survivors and heroes, outlasting others and managing to find a way to stop the carnage. However, they are more often seen as either sex-based victims or just someone to be rescued.

Joss Whedon’s CABIN IN THE WOODS satirized these trends as the two main female characters were literally forced into the sexy girl or virgin tropes. Nonetheless, horror does provide more nuanced roles for women at times. Those women evolve over the course of the film to become either the main hero or equals to male counterparts. So today, we look at five women of horror that rose to the bloody challenge.

5. Cynthia Cronenberg In NIGHT OF THE CREEPS

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NIGHT OF THE CREEPS stands as one of the most underrated horror films. A tribute to B-movies, the film has college students fighting off an alien invasion of slugs that burrow into the brain and create zombies. The B-movie nature means the main focus is a pair of young nerdy college students.

Cynthia acts as the girl that the lead desires (of course). However, Cynthia is more than an object of desire. She acts as president of her sorority and is the first to encounter the slugs. Her character grows further, as she breaks up with her cruel jock boyfriend after seeing his ugly behavior, and befriends the nerdy leads.

The film strikes a unique balance with Cynthia as the threat grows. The slug-drive zombies trap her and the other girls in the sorority house. She is rescued by the lead, but she doesn’t become another helpless victim. Cynthia straps a flamethrower over her dress and goes out to roast slugs along with the lead. It’s a more realistic portrayal that’s unique for horror. Cynthia needs help on occasion, but she can stand up for herself and is more than willing to throw down when needed.

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4. Petra Lane In FREAKS OF NATURE

I spoke at length on FREAKS OF NATURE last year, but Petra remains a highlight of the film for me. Petra begins the film as a ‘wampire’ (basically a goth TWILIGHT fan in a world of actual vampires) who dates a vamp bully. Petra wants acceptance in the vampire clique.

She allows her boyfriend to bite her (note to Stephanie Meyers, THIS is how you use vampirism as a metaphor for sex). The boyfriend dumps her immediately following this. Petra’s new fangs become her scarlet letter, as she realizes she’s been used. Petra’s growth throughout the film is the most emotional because it causes the most pain.

She gives in to her anger and kills on one occasion, but also sobs over the hypocrisy of her situation (being labeled eternally because of one incident while other ‘easier’ girls become idolized). Her interaction with her costars (who have similar frustrations as humans and zombies) are what allow her to grow and begin to feel accepted again.

Petra’s contributions make her a valued part of the group, and that allows her to not only accept her situation but also kick her ex to the curb. Like Cynthia, Petra demonstrates how far a single person can go with a little help.

3. Starla Grant In SLITHER

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Before James Gunn made GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, he made the splatterfest known as SLITHER. SLITHER’s plot nods to NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, as alien slugs create zombies. The film ups the ante with horrific mutations though. It imitates an important element in having another strong female lead. Starla Grant begins the film looking like a damsel. She is a pretty blond schoolteacher, married to a possessive rich man, and yearned after by the heroic sheriff. However, Gunn adds levels to Starla that make a much more intriguing character.

Starla’s marriage to Grant is one she seems naive about, but one she works very hard at. When Grant is infected and begins to mutate, her concern about him is what leads to her uncovering his secret. Her love and dedication to Grant becomes a source of strength. She pushes herself into the police search for Grant and does everything within her power to reach her husband. However, when things go bad, Starla is fully capable of defending herself.

Grant captures Starla, but instead of cowering in fear, Starla uses his desire for her to nearly kill him. Starla eventually does kill Grant and save the town. She remains a unique horror heroine– one who believes in love but isn’t blinded by it. And is very handy with a signpost.

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2. Nancy Thompson In NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET

NIGHTMARE fans have seen multiple women wage war on Freddy Krueger. However, none of them come close to the original. Nancy Thompson fit the stereotype of a ‘virgin’ horror character (the innocent who becomes the hero).

She dealt with far more than just a slasher with a knife though. Nancy watched her friends die one by one through the same horrific dreams. Her only option was to stay awake, which presented a unique challenge. Throughout the film, Nancy dealt with everyone believing she was going mad. Everything she was seeing was a reaction to her friends’ death.

Nancy clung to her convictions, however. By doing so, she forced her parents to admit their part in the creation of Freddy. She also drafted a way to neuter Freddy’s dream powers by dragging him into the real world. Nancy risked her life and sanity to stop Freddy; it’s no wonder she returned in two sequels. The first is always the best.

1. Ellen Ripley In ALIENS

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No list of movies heroines would be complete without Ellen Ripley. The heroine of four ALIEN films became one of sci-fi/horror’s most memorable characters, thanks to her courage in the face of danger. The original ALIEN introduced us to this future bad-ass, but it’s the sequel ALIENS that made Ripley a legend.

Ripley begins that film suffering post-traumatic stress from her original encounter. Another expedition pulls her in to eliminate the creatures. Just like the last time, it fails to succeed. Ripley pushes past her trauma to try to save the crew, no doubt due to her bond with the orphaned Newt.

The strength of the motherly bond between the two transforms Ripley in the gun-slinging bad ass fans know her as. It adds an extra level of drama to her final battle as well. An armored Ripley fights the Alien Queen as the ultimate battle of two mothers trying to save their children.

It’s not only awesome to watch, it shows the pure strength and determination that only two female characters can bring to the screen. It makes you wonder why there aren’t more horror moments like this.

When Horror Does Women Right

Obviously, horror films need to have victims for killers to be scary. There’s nothing wrong with a rescue story either. However, these women prove a different approach can lead to great results. Horror can create strong female characters along with the other tropes.

It allows the genre to keep classic elements, but also update them for the times. It leads to great moments for the genre, but also great moments for new actresses to shine. Horror movies spawned famous actresses like Jaime Lee Curtis and Rooney Mara already. A more balanced approach can produce more.

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