To keep with the theme of the month, I’d like to take a look at some of the different types of female characters found in horror fiction and film. Now unlike many of the lists I’ve come across, I’m not focusing on who’s hot or scream queens or what have you…I want to take a look at the actual characters and what they contribute to the genre. It’s so easy to have ladies in dark fantasy and horror categorized (usually by who lives and who gets killed off), but I’m hoping to do things a little differently.
Today’s post is about all those female characters who, for some reason or another, aren’t quite all there. Whether something drives them to it or they’re like that to begin with doesn’t matter. Likewise, the type of crazy can differ (ie. is someone pushed into acting out or simply a conniving, deranged killer). Some of these I’m more familiar with than others, but I wanted a good, diverse list (plus, this definitely gives me some things to put on my list and expand my own horror knowledge). So here is the list of some of my favorites:
Carrie and her mother from Carrie by Stephen King – Both belong on this list for different reasons. Carrie is pushed and pushed from all angles – at home she’s terrorized by her religious mother’s unforgiving approach at life. At school she’s an outcast. Plus, she has unusual powers that might make her feel validated at certain points in the book, but they certainly don’t make things any easier. I like Carrie, though, because although she starts off fairly unlikable and only worthy of pity, she also makes the reader’s frustration turn to cheering for her as the book progresses. You want to believe things can get better for her. You know she doesn’t deserve any of that treatment at all. How many of us girls have been ganged up on at school? How many of us have had differing views than our parents (though hopefully nothing that led to the extreme fights in the book)? Carrie works because her character hits pretty close to home. She’s infuriating because you want her to stand up for herself faster. She’s amazing when she finally starts trying and starts realizing what she’s capable of. And it’s horrible and devastating that ultimately there’s no relief or place for her. The only thing she can really hope for is to take down the cruel people who drove her over the edge as she falls.
While her mother is far more unlikable than Carrie, the bits of her back story that are revealed make you feel for her. How many women have been yanked around between moral values and the love or lust they’re feeling? How many are raised with conflicting signals? What must it be like to constantly be around someone that makes you believe that you’ve failed simply by being human? She’s the ugly twisting of our emotions that no one wants to see happen to them. We all want to be good people, but at some point we all have to strike a balance between what we believe and what we feel. Her utter inability to do that just drives her to work harder at grasping for some sort of control, turning her daughter into a victim in the process. Yes, by the end of the book you’re definitely ready to see her go, but it’s not an easy scene to read. It’s not like a random slasher movie where the bad guy dies and it’s okay because they’re bad. This is someone’s mother. This is someone who despite her darkness, despite her issues, obviously has a lot going on that she can’t resolve for herself (thus taking it out on her daughter). It’s a tragic relationship, which makes the climactic scene between mother and daughter that much more visceral.
Annie Wilkes from Misery by Stephen King – Not only is this book every writer’s worst nightmare, but Annie is a complex powerhouse of crazy. An adoring fan girl of sorts, she’s also a little emotionally simplistic in that she thinks in blacks and whites. Disagreeing with her could be a death sentence as Paul finds out when he quickly realizes that he’s at her mercy. Heaven forbid he writes something she doesn’t approve of. It’s also not just the fact that he’s trapped in her house far from people, or that he’s been in a car wreck. Annie is smart. She knows how to care for him and make him depend on her, knows enough to get him addicted to painkillers (depending on her even more), and at one point even knows how to keep tabs on him when she’s out of the house. Her love is just as bad as her anger or neglect – no matter what her mood, there is no respite from her presence. Even in the scenes she’s not in, she’s there as a looming presence, just waiting to barrel back into the story. It’s also not just that she loves Paul’s Misery books. She has a version of him in her head that he can never live up to, dooming him nearly from the get go. Seriously, how many women do this with people they admire or potentially love? This is definitely a female trait (even if the rest of us don’t torture or take captive the objects of our desire). And it isn’t that she does this with him…she’s done this before. The lengthy collection of her victims that Paul finds in the book is far more terrifying than the movie version, and the book also takes the time to build her agitation, depression, anger, and misplaced love until there is no room to breathe.
Esther from The Orphan – Because someone who poses as a 9 year old, attempts to seduce her adopted father, and has murdered multiple people definitely has issues. Granted, this is more of a situation-driven title, but the character itself is creepy as sin. Not only does she play on people’s sympathy and desire for a child, but who would even think to do something like that? I also like that the whole plot plays on how maternal instincts are supposed to be and turning the parent/child dynamic topsy turvy.
May Canady from May – How many of us have felt lonely and pushed aside at certain parts of our lives? I think that’s what makes May such a great character – we can relate to that yearning to want someone in our lives. Her motivation isn’t some random bloodthirst or quest for vengeance or just because reason. She desperately wants to belong and be loved, like so many of us want to be loved. The only difference is we don’t kill people and try to make the perfect friend out of their body parts.
Rhoda Penmark from The Bad Seed – Whatever version you prefer, it takes the evil is genetic route. Even though it’s more about the premise than the character per say, the concept is unnerving enough to illicit some real chills. It also does a great job of exploring not only the mother/daughter relationship in a few ways, but also using the selfish whims of a child to propel the drama. Let’s not forget – Rhoda kills her friend Claude over a penmanship medal that she felt she should have won. We all have moments like that growing up – hell, we still have them as adults. But the fact that it’s this little pigtailed girl using childlike methods to get even or take out her anger on people…that kind of makes you think twice when your little relative or friend screams that they hate you. Kids – especially girls – feel things in big ways, and this plot makes full use of that.
Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist – Granted, it’s not Regan per say but the demon that’s possessing her that’s causing the drama, but would it really have been as impactful a plot if Regan had been an older woman? Think of it this way – if Regan had been a man, that would have been creepy, but probably less so. Even a little boy – while creepier – wouldn’t have had the impact of a young girl saying and doing the horrible things that Regan does. The book and movie are terrifying anyway, but being constantly confronted with this perversion of youth and innocence – it’s skating the edge of being pretty taboo if you think about it. A young girl is supposed to be innocent, safe, sweet. When evil has it’s way with the girl, it makes her not only say some horrific stuff, but do some pretty heinous things for a little girl (I’m sure you can guess what I’m referring to). At least for the duration of her possession, Regan isn’t in her right mind, and being constantly confronted with that is very, very unnerving for a film audience or reader. You also have the mother/daughter relationship come into play as her mother struggles to save her from the evil that has control. Again, would it really work if it was Regan’s father who was trying to help his daughter regain her soul? Films like this (and others on this list) work because there’s something intrinsically scary about that sacred feminine mother/daughter relationship being exploited or decimated.
Mrs. Vorhees from Friday the 13th – Speaking of the whole maternal dynamic…I really love that she turns out to be the killer in the original Friday the 13th. Although the franchise fizzled as it went along, you do end up with the story of a woman who’s insanely protective of her son – so much so that she kills those she deems responsible for his death a year after the fact. Not only that, but she’s so consumed by it that she not only poisons Camp Crystal Lake’s water and sets various fires, but kills other prospective counselors because she’s determined that no one be killed due to that kind of neglect again. Of course what happened to Jason was a tragedy, but that’s like adding two and two and getting nine million. This lady is determined and not afraid to get her hands dirty, all because her grief and this well-meaning but almost lofty goal. To add to the insanity, she remains a big part of Jason’s psyche even after she’s killed – he practically has a shrine to her at one point and uses her head to intimidate a victim. The lady has a definite presence, and it’s all because she was so manically devoted to her son in the first place.
Baby Jane Hudson from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – I was accidentally shown this movie at a fairly young age, and although it was appropriately traumatizing, it also was burned into my brain like lightning. This is one of the freakiest, best examples of crazy women in the genre one could hope for. A former child star whose glitter slowly fades as she ages, she’s also overshadowed by her sister Blanche as they grow up. Years later she’s caring for Blanche (who is disabled now) while her mind is firmly rooted in the past (and in her drinking habit). When she finds out that Blanche intends to sell their house and possibly commit Jane, Jane responds by becoming downright abusive, even serving Blanche her own pet parakeet for lunch. Not only that, but she’s determined to go back to showbiz and recapture her past glory. Remember that she was a child star, and it isn’t like this is taking place when the sisters are in their twenties. They are well into their lives – there is no way Jane’s pipe dream would be possible, but she pursues it, anyway. Not only do you have more mistreatment of animals for her sister’s consumption, but she repeatedly locks Blanche away, forges her signature on business transactions, and kills those who might free her sister. All while planning her comeback. What you get is a manic, hard-to-watch performance that’s simply brilliant. It is impossible to look away as the action plays out. This is sibling rivalry at it’s maximum, especially when you find out WHY Blanche is now handicapped (let’s just say she’s not exactly innocent, either). While I know brothers and guys in general can be rough on each other, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: girls can be sadistic, especially if one wants what another has. There’s no reason for it sometimes, and this movie proves it. The ending scenes at the beach, where Jane is completely out of her mind, is a brilliantly disturbing end to the film. This works because as much abuse as Jane inflicts on Blanche, she also obviously has had her disappointments that have affected her for a long, long time. With Blanche not being an innocent, either, they end up destroying each other’s lives all out of jealousy and rivalry. It especially works because both have egos, and both are varying degrees of fragile and unstable.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – women are more than victims and hot babes in horror. I’m not saying to completely get rid of those tropes, but at some point it gets to be lazy storytelling. Of course people are going to watch ladies get their clothes torn while running from a killer. Of course people are going to fork over money to read about hot vampire girls doing inappropriate things to their male victims. Of course people are going to be okay with women being chainsaw fodder.
That doesn’t mean those tropes should be relied on. That doesn’t mean that’s all there is. It doesn’t make it good story structure or particularly effective beyond a visceral or hormonal level.
Feminine roles (mother, girl, teenage girl, old woman) can be used and warped to creep people out and make for some really, really amazing stories. All of these characters could have been turned into men and used in the same ways, but it wouldn’t have been as nearly effective. Why? Because there’s something inherently terrifying about a woman who has lost it. For better or worse, women are seen as more fragile, and seeing them suddenly become violent or dangerous is unnerving. In the case of Carrie, we actually can get behind her because she has a right to her revenge, so what does that make us for feeling like she should be allowed to destroy her town? After all, these ladies don’t think they’re crazy. They’re merely going after what they want. To them, their methods are perfectly reasonable if it justifies the end results. They’re so surrounded by their situations, they can’t be objective about what they’re doing at all. And the thing is, if it’s done well, we should be so caught up in their journey that we should be teetering on that edge of judgement right along with them for the duration of the book or film.
These characters make us not only wonder about what a woman’s roles could be, but about our reactions and ourselves, as well.
And believe me – the crazy gals are just the tip of the iceberg.