For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved monsters. There’s no kaiju, xenomorph, zombie, or werewolf in existence that I wasn’t intensely fascinated with as a child. This love has only grown as I’ve gotten older, leading me to far too many late-night movie binges and subjecting my friends and family to some dubious choices. I can’t help it.
I just really, really love monsters.
To a much broader extent, I love horror. Horror is a genre rooted in uncovering our unconscious anxieties and societal fears. It allows us – as both filmmakers and audience – to explore those fears safely. When it wants to, horror tells us a lot about how we view the world and how we see ourselves. The same can be said about the monsters we create within those stories. In fact, monsters often represent our fear of the “other” in some way. They are strange, terrifying outsiders to what we know and understand. Much like we often fear other cultures, peoples, or even behavior that we cannot understand, the monster represents those fears and the dangers we see in the unfamiliar.
Monsters are the unknown. Classic zombies have represented a little bit of everything, including our anxieties for increasing globalization, growing racial tensions, fears of the overreach of capitalism, and even the loss of the self. Vampires, at their core, symbolize our cultural attitudes towards sex or our obsession with beauty and immortality. Even Lovecraft’s great horrors represent the dangers of seeking the unknowable and fears of losing our minds seeking too much knowledge.
So what about the ladies?
When we think about women in horror movies, we usually go straight to final girls like Ellen Ripley or Laurie Strode. On the other hand, when we think about how horror movies are often framed, we think about female victims and how they are far more frequently than their male counterparts. Less often, we consider the female monsters we see in film and literature.
From Carmilla to Carrie, I’m taking a look at some of my favorite female monsters and exploring what they tell us about ourselves and our biggest fears.
Myths and Monsters
Horror is rooted in mythology – the blueprint of our favorite monsters can be found in the myths and legends of earlier people. If we go back far enough, you’ll find plenty of female monsters in Greek myth, and all of them are just as terrifying as their modern counterparts.
There were monstrous creatures (and people) galore in Odysseus’s long journey home after the Trojan War. One of the earliest encounters his crew had was with the sirens. This half-fish, half-woman were the daughters of sea deities and stunningly beautiful. They perched upon rocks in the sea and sang so beautifully that sailors were compelled to leap from their ships and attempt to swim to them. The sailors were hopelessly in love and filled with desire. They’d either drown on their way or die from exposure because they’d never leave. Even that far back, the supernatural allure of female sexuality was a great fear for men. In the 2016 film SiREN, these fears are explored in a modern adaptation of the myth that centers around a bachelor party gone horribly wrong.
Hands down, Medusa is one of the best-known female monsters from legend. With her serpentine body and iconic snakes for hair, she had the power to turn a man to stone by looking at him. As a beautiful mortal woman, she caught the eye of the god Poseidon. He discovered her in the temple of Athena, where he raped her. Athena, enraged by the sacrilege in her sacred space, cursed Medusa into the horrible monster most know her as. By punishing Medusa, the myth places the blame for the act solely on her shoulders. She’s punished for being beautiful; at the core of the story, by being a woman in the first place. Even that far back, women are blamed for the transgressions that happen to them and her story is a warning.
Womanhood and Witches
We are obsessed with beauty, youth, and the female form. For much of our history, Western culture has also had fears about the female body as well. It might sound a little reactionary, but how many movies feature young women – and their shift into adulthood – as part of becoming a monster?
Carrie White, Carrie (1976)
When talking about complicated horror characters, Carrie White is always at the top of the list. While she’s not a monster in the most traditional sense of the word, her story centers on becoming monstrous to both herself, her family, and the community around her. She’s a sympathetic, wounded young woman who struggles with some very extreme versions of typical teen problems.
The horror of the 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie centers around puberty and, specifically, menstruation. Carrie’s transformation through the film is an example of what Barbara Creed called “The Monstrous-Feminine,” a common trope where young women in horror flicks are possessed or portrayed as demonic during puberty. For Carrie, she gains supernatural abilities that eventually lead her to telekinetically slaughter most of her high school and then burn it to the ground. The film has some underlying connotations about fears surrounding women with power being unstable and prone to emotional reactions.
But let’s be honest. Most of them deserved it.
Regan MacNeil, The Exorcist (1973)
The Monstrous-Feminine appears in a lot of films, including what is arguably one of the scariest films of all time. In The Exorcist, young Regan’s possession happens to occur at the age where she’s reaching womanhood as well. Under the demonic influence, she begins acting out in wildly inappropriate (often sexual) ways. These gruesome scenes are some of the most iconic imagery in horror cinema.
The changes in both behavior and her body are monstrous; it’s only through the purity and faith of Catholic priests that she is redeemed and saved from the demons possessing her. When you take into consideration how many real-life cases of exorcism in the Catholic Church involve young women of similar ages as the possessed individual, it adds another layer to the whole thing. Girls are often taught that natural changes in their bodies are shameful and can lead to sin and that they must be pure both in body and spirit to be good and wholesome. It’s no surprise that so many possession stories highlight how young women change as they experience the very natural part of growing up, much to the discomfort of those around them.
(As a note, one of the best modern deconstructions of a possession narrative can be found in Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts. It’s a fantastic horror novel that you should absolutely check out.)
Ginger Fitzgerald, Ginger Snaps (1999)
You really can’t talk about the terrors of being a teenager without Ginger Snaps. Bridgette and Ginger Fitzgerald are outcasts in their small town. The teen sisters share a morbid fascination with death and have little desire to interact with their cruel peers. Shortly after experiencing her first period, Ginger is bitten by a mysterious dog. She begins to sprout hair from uncomfortable places, has wild mood swings, develops a lust for blood and boys, and starts dressing in a more provocative manner.
That’s right. This late bloomer finds herself turning into a bloodthirsty werewolf.
Ginger Snaps is a fantastic feminist horror flick that highlights the horror of puberty for a girl who already has no desire to fit in. The bond between the sisters is the core of the story, though it’s filled with plenty of werewolf kills and blood. Ultimately, Ginger is too untamed and uncontrollable in her power. When even her sister can’t save her, she suffers the fate seen by many of those young women struggling with discovering themselves and their agency– she’s smothered by the expectations of society and meets an unfortunate end.
Thomasin, The Witch (2015)
Some of my favorite horror films are a deconstruction of these classic archetypes. No film fits that mold better than 2015’s The Witch. The film, set in the American wilds of 1630, is a folktale viewed through a modern, largely feminist lens. Thomasin, the family’s oldest daughter, is trapped in her family’s strict religious traditions even as her father is too extreme for the puritans of their small community. Exiled from one of the most restrictive religious groups in history for being a fanatic, the family makes a homestead far from the town. As things go wrong for the family, they begin to suspect darker forces at play – starting with their eldest daughter.
She is punished for her beauty and sexual maturity time and time again by her own family, even when her brother’s inappropriate thoughts are the true culprit. As they grow more and more suspicious of her, the dark influence over the family grows. Thomasin is caught in their paranoia and finds herself at the focal point for it. It’s no wonder that, in the end of the film, after losing everything she knows, she ultimately finds her freedom by embracing the dark powers – and her sexuality – without looking back.
In this case, you can view her as either becoming the monster – or escaping them.
Laurie, Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Trick ‘r Treat (2007) is a treasure. The anthology film manages to be packed with creepy fun and campy humor in a tight, clever package. Among the stories is “Surprise Package,” a “first-time” story that goes wildly off the rails in the best way possible. This is hands-down my favorite segment of the film, mostly because it does the unexpected in a movie full of surprises.
Laurie, self-conscious and uncertain, is accompanying her older sister and friends to the town’s Halloween celebration for the first time. She’s little out of place as they go out choosing sexy Halloween costumes and finding dates for a party for the night. As they celebrate, Laurie expresses concern for her “first time” and the desire for it to be special; the others assure her that it will be perfect and that she shouldn’t wait. She’s the perfect picture of a blushing virgin that rivals any Final Girl, especially as a masked serial killer stalks her during the holiday festival.
But when the moment is right, it’s revealed that these man-eaters aren’t quite looking for the same good time as their dates are. It’s such a fun reversal of traditional horror film roles in such a tongue-in-cheek story that it’s impossible not to love!
There are many kinds of monsters. For some, the change overtakes them and turns them into strangers. For others? It’s always been there. That can be said for most monstrous seductresses in horror media. In most of these examples, the female monsters use sex appeal to lure her victims in without violence. It’s only when that seduction is complete that the victim even realizes they were the ones in danger at all. Jennifer’s Body – a feminist attempt to critique this trope – highlights the portrayal of the seductress who has little interest in her male victims beyond taking gratification from their deaths.
Carmilla, Carmilla (1871)
It’s impossible to talk about sexy lady monsters without talking about Carmilla. This 1871 book predates Stoker’s Dracula by 27 years and is the sexy lesbian vampire story you’ve probably never heard of. It’s the story of a young woman named Laura and a beautiful, mysterious woman named Carmilla. After they meet by chance, they find a strong connection to one another and fall in love. Of course, Carmilla also happens to be a vampire. She feeds on the young women of the village around them. In the end, she is killed by Laura’s father before she could feed upon Laura as well. Vampire novels were incredibly popular during the Victorian era and many of them were quite erotic. The era’s restrictive views on sex produced many horror works emphasizing how anyone could fall to such immoral (and often homoerotic) temptation.
While Dracula was far more popular upon publication, it’s too bad we don’t see more of her in modern horror.
Sil, Species (1995)
Maybe trusting an unknown alien species to splice human DNA with theirs isn’t the best plan humanity has ever had. That’s exactly what happens in this 1995 film. Geneticists create a female creature (because somehow a female will be more docile?) named Sil. Inevitably, the scientists try to kill her for being too difficult to control. Who would have thought? Sil escapes and begins trying to fulfill her primal urge.
That’s right. They made a sexy alien hybrid, and all she wants to do is procreate with human males. Obviously, she ends up killing them all in the process. It’s not hard to see the horror in that, as the seemingly normal (if supermodel gorgeous) Sil attracts men to her with ulterior motives and then destroys them once she’s finished with her own selfish desires. It taps into masculine fears of the man-eater. In this case, it’s a literal monster masquerading as a woman. With a large sexual appetite, Sil cares about nothing beyond her biological imperative.
Asami, Audition (1999)
In this controversial Japanese horror flick, an aging widower goes looking for love and meets Asami, a young, seemingly docile woman who would make the perfect wife. Or so he thinks. By all accounts, this isn’t a film for the squeamish. In fact, as a note, much of the horror is based on graphic torture scenes that I generally avoid.
But there’s something about Asami and Audition that stands out despite the extreme depictions of violence and torture. She speaks softly, maintains her modesty, and spends most of the film dressed entirely in white. She seems like the perfect woman for a man looking only for a replacement wife. It’s only when things begin to unravel that we understand that she is not what she seems; Asami isn’t the blank slate her suitor expects. Nor is she willing to settle for being that. At that point, the movie explores what makes a woman lash out against others in such extreme and horrifying ways. Is Asami a just vicious black widow? Or is her gruesome behavior a reflection of how the men in her life treat her? This movie, much like the antagonist, is complicated.
But that’s probably one of the best things a monster can be, isn’t it?
Julie Walker, Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)
Return of the Living Dead 3 is a B-horror flick that has no right to be as much fun as it is. It’s a campy, over-the-top zombie horror that is just as ridiculous as the two films that came before it. Honestly, it’s much better than the second installment in the series by far. The story isn’t anything out of the ordinary for a zombie flick. Teenage Curt Reynolds attempts to bring his girlfriend Julie Walker back from the dead after an accident. In the process, he starts a small zombie outbreak and flees the military researchers after them. It’s gory, absurd, and one of the best in the series.
The most interesting part of this film is Julie, our heroine, and the simple fact that she is a monster that does not want to be one. She is a zombie fighting to keep her humanity at any cost. Discovering that pain helps her maintain that humanity, Julie mutilates herself in increasingly dramatic ways. Her transformation into the grotesque is fueled by her desire to maintain her identity. Even when she’s forced to go to greater lengths to keep the hunger inside her at bay, she realizes she cannot escape the inevitable, and she gives into what she has become.
When we think of the classic role women play, it’s generally the caretaker. As mothers and caregivers, they are expected to be selfless providers for those around them. And when that goes sideways, it can bring to life female villains that are driven by something much darker.
Annie Wilkes, Misery (1990) & Castle Rock (2019)
Another Stephen King creation, Annie Wilkes is the terrifying fanatic who terrorizes author Paul Sheldon under the guise of nursing him back to health. She returns in a younger incarnation for the second season of Castle Rock, which explores her history in much greater detail. In both adaptations, her occupation as a nurse and compassionate facade is sharply contrasted by her obsessive, abusive love towards her daughter (Castle Rock) and her favorite author (Misery).
Our expectations about both mothers and caretakers are similar – benevolent, noble, and self-sacrificing for their responsibilities. They happily take care of those under their care, right? Annie Wilkes brings her own twisted version of love and care that ends in her murderous obsession.
After all, who can forget that infamous hobbling scene?
Pamela Voorhees, Friday The 13th (1980)
It’s true that the undead titan in a hockey mask has dominated the franchise over the last three decades. It’s easy to forget that it was his mother who began the rampage that kicked the whole thing off. Middle-aged, unassuming, yet possessing an unnerving intensity, Pamela Voorhees slaughters her way through two generations of camp counselors in the original Friday the 13th. All to gain vengeance for the death of her son. With her pastel woolen sweater and ’80s mom haircut, she looks more likely to bake cookies than put an axe in your skull.
Until she gets the axe.
Her conservative views on sexual purity are taken to the extreme, warning millions of teens in the Reagan era about the dangers of promiscuity and kicking off a generation of slashers keen on hacking apart mostly naked coeds.
The Alien Queen, Aliens (1986)
Everyone knew this was coming, right? If the opportunity comes up, I’m obligated to talk about some part of the Alien franchise. The xenomorph represents a whole host of fears in the realm of body horror, including forced impregnation and the terror of being stalked by a relentless, perfect killing machine. The Alien Queen introduced in the second film takes that to another level. Both her monstrous size and dedication to her brood of face-hugger eggs make her a formidable match. After all, she is the perfect foil for Ellen Ripley’s maternal connection to the orphaned Newt.
When Ripley destroys her eggs and ovipositor while rescuing Newt, the enraged Queen follows her to the planet’s surface (and ultimately into space) to wreak havoc on her escape plans. Their final clash is one of the most memorable moments in the entire franchise (“Get away from her, you bitch!”) while providing a fantastic showdown between two opposite mother figures. The Queen proves that hell hath no fury like a mother protecting her brood.
Even if that brood is composed of H.R. Giger nightmares.
The Grand High Witch, The Witches (1990)
I’ll admit that The Witches isn’t necessarily a horror film, but is there anything more terrifying than the moment Anjelica Huston sheds her chic facade in favor of revealing her true form? Coupled with some fantastic special effects and her horrifying demeanor, The Grand High Witch belongs on this list. Her hatred of children, coupled with the grand plan to transform them all into mice, is the stuff of nightmares.
Witches were long thought to feed on children (think Hansel and Gretel), and they are often portrayed as kindly women who transform into monsters when presented with the opportunity. Witches were accused of child sacrifice — even their own offspring — to maintain their dark powers. It certainly increases the perils of being seen as a bad mother by certain communities to another level.
Though they don’t always get the same attention as their male counterparts, female monsters have a long history in horror. They’re complicated, messy, and always ready to cause some mayhem. And, while I highlighted a handful of my favorites here, there are many, many more out there.