She’s Just the Girl: Top Five Horror Heroines (and Anti-Heroines)

Welcome back for another week of Shaggin the Muse! I’m excited to get this week going, as I think I have some really fun items to share with readers. Today we start with a piece inspired by friend Kim Koning’s great post, Kick-Ass Heroines (seriously, check it out). Since I’ve been turning my eye more toward horror, dread, and all things dark, I figured it might be time to take a look at some of my favorite horror film heroines.

Now, let’s be clear: I understand that horror, or at least horror films, have a gender issue. A whole load of gender issues. A veritable newsstand of them. How many of these films and stories present the madonna/whore complex that you see in films like Friday the 13th? How many of these films betray a regressionist tendency to define women as sex objects? Way too many for me to be comfortable. The women in horror films are typically portrayed as passive victims, forced to run for their lives without stopping to fight or outsmart their pursuers. All too often they become simply macguffins, objects to be rescued by the heroic man of the story. It’s true that this began to change in the late 1970s, with Halloween being the most notable of films to begin the change, but the issue still exists.

That’s why I thought it might be interesting to look at the women who broke the mold.

Just a side-note, I debated on whether to add Clarice Starling to this list and ultimately left her off for a number of reasons. One is that I think the film Hannibal really harmed the character overall, but even leaving that aside, I just can’t bring myself to think of that series as a horror series. To me, they’re straight-up thrillers. Dana Scully may also belong on this list, but the X-Files blurred so many genre lines that I’m not sure I can put her here in good conscience.

So, that said, let’s take a look, shall we?

5. Helen Lyle from Candyman (Virginia Madsen). This was a tough one; I had to decide between Helen and Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street. Nancy is an emotional favorite, but I just cannot look past Helen. She begins the film as a research specialist examining urban legends who stumbles onto the legend of the Candyman, who is supposed to be responsible for so many of the urban legends that we’ve heard. We soon learn that Helen is dealing with a failing marriage to a fellow researcher; the subtext of thisrelationship is often overlooked in addressing the story (though this guy hits the nail on the head), but it’s key to the film and part of what makes the film stand out in the genre. Candyman puts Helen into a situation where she’s forced to kill and ends up an outsider, branded as a murderer, which just drives her closer to the killer. I don’t want to give away too much, but as the story goes on, she learns to use Candyman to her advantage. Madsen puts on a fantastic performance as the film draws to its powerful – and surprising – conclusion. If you’ve seen the film, check out that link I just provided. It says everything I would like to say in a much more eloquent fashion. She’s very worthy of this list.

4. Sidney Prescott from the Scream series (Neve Campbell). I probably don’t need to tell you that the Scream films have a checkered history, and for good reason. I still argue that the first Scream film is a brilliant work of horror, while the next two movies go increasingly off the rails (and the less said about the fourth film, the better). Sidney is a young woman who’s lost her mother to a brutal murder; when the film starts, she’s already in the center of a whirlwind, with a murder occurring in her hometown and the one-year anniversary of her own mother’s murder fast approaching. The plot picks her up off her feet pretty quickly, as she’s attacked by the killer early on. As the story progresses, we see that she’s smart and tough in the face of overwhelming sadness and terror, ultimately getting the upper hand on the killer. It’s hard to imagine a character like Sidney flourishing in the older style of horror films, but she’s a great example of what’s possible with horror heroines.

3. Sarah from The Descent (Shauna MacDonald). Wow. This movie surprised me, really grabbing me by the guts and refusing to let go. Sarah is one of a group of female “extreme sports” junkies who decide to go into a series of unexplored caves. Okay, there’s more to it than that – the trip is also intended as a way for these friends to reconnect after Sarah has lost her husband and daughter, which lends a sort of metaphorical air to the film’s premise. She and her friends are soon stranded in the caves, fighting with a bunch of murderous creatures for their own survival. Even with her tragic past (and a discovery that drives the blade of that tragedy deeper into her heart), Sarah manages to overcome the odds thrown at her and emerge somewhat victorious, though there is always the lingering question of whether the whole thing had been a psychotic episode which, of course, makes her character all the more compelling. Great flick, great character.

2. Laurie Strode from Halloween (Jamie Lee Curtis). Oh, like I could leave her off. Laurie is the prototype of what is now know as “The Final Girl”, the one who, due to her righteousness and purity, survives to the end of the film. This is an unfortunate trope that has a lot to do with some of those gender issues that I mentioned up above, but when Laurie debuted the concept was still pretty fresh, and there is a legit reason why she’s spared that has nothing to do with her “sexual purity” and more to do with her own resourcefulness and strength. I probably don’t need to tell you the plot of this film as even people who haven’t seen it know it, but I can say that, without Laurie, there would be no Sidney Prescott. She was a trailblazer, and for good reason. Curtis’s performance alone elevates the film beyond a typical slasher movie.

1. Ellen Ripley from the Alien series (Sigourney Weaver). As if it could be anyone else. I’ve talked about Ellen before in my Alien and Aliens reviews, so I won’t belabor the films’ plots. My favorite thing about Ripley is how, in the first film, she’s not played as the “bad ass” or “the woman”, but simply as another character fighting for her life (well, up until that last scene, which actually makes some sense in the context of the film). People point to the fact that Ripley was originally a man as evidence that somehow Ripley’s character was a happy accident rather than an intentional move on the part of the filmmakers, but I think that severely understates that just about any of the decision-makers on that film could have played up her femininity and deliberately chose against it. This, I feel, sets Ripley apart from characters like Sarah Connor, who feels very deliberately badass in the second Terminator film to the point of rendering her almost neutered – but that’s a kettle of fish for another time. Ripley is steadfast and determined, but at no point do I feel that she loses her identity as a woman.

But of course there is that scene at the end of Alien, where she strips down to her underwear, offering the viewer some lingering shots of her body. It unfortunately does work against the film’s message up to that point, but I’d also argue that it’s a way of presenting her with her defenses down, completely vulnerable to the xenomorph. Her actions in the face of that threat, in such a vulnerable position, only underscore her strength. It could have been filmed better, no question, but I think the scene is integral to understanding Ripley.

Anyway, she’s easily #1 and her bearing is the inspiration behind so many of my own female characters; Matty’s DNA is very similar to Ellen Ripley, and for good reason.

Do you have any others you’d like to add? I’d be curious to hear your choices or dissent in the comments section.

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  1. Good list. I haven’t seen two of the movies (Candyman and Descent), but maybe I’ll keep an eye out for them on cable. I do miss Sarah Conner on the list. Yeah, she was a bit much in the sequel, but she had to experience some serious growth in the first movie.

  2. I have to say Ripley is on top and she’ll stay there. Beyond compare. Especially in Aliens.

  3. I’ve only seen Halloween and Alien on this list, but I love your descriptions. It’s making me want to see the other movies for the grrrrl power!

  4. I have seen all of these and agree with you that all of these characters manages to be something more than “just a girl.” Your post brings to mind “Cabin in the Woods.” That movie managed to call out many of the painful tropes that horror movies employ, including some that expose the ridiculous way women are portrayed (the literal “dumb blonde”). I think artists are still struggling to present strong Western women who are not really just men with boobs. Horror, despite its obvious macguffin-izing in most movies, still seems to have done much better than action movies in having some examples of strong women who remain women. Now, I’m wondering if I can fit in an afternoon horror movie marathon! 🙂


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