When looking at ‘Best Horror Movie Villains’ lists it’s hard to ignore the fact that all are almost exclusively compiled of male baddies. There might be a Wicked Witch of the West here or a Maleficent there, but on the whole men seem to have a leather-faced, orange and green striped jumper-clad, fava beans-munching monopoly on the whole violent villain scene.
Despite this, horror as a genre is often associated with the female sex. It is an extreme, visceral, emotionally-heightened experience that lends itself to the irrational mind, a characteristic historically associated with women. The pragmatic, practical mind (classically male) needs to let itself be swept away by nightmarish fantasies in order to get the full enveloping experience of the genre.
Why, then, is the root of the horror film – the monster – so often a guy? And more specifically, a guy out to get a girl?
Let’s be clear: horror films rarely rain death down upon women solely, and statistically women outlive the men, what with ‘The Final Girl’ convention (which alludes to the smart girl who out-thinks the pretty dumb ones and survives until the end – see decade-spanning franchises HALLOWEEN, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13th). But what is apparent is that the female body is often the site of the horror first and foremost, and the place to which our gaze is directed as a vehicle for meaning, as well as where we derive the pleasure of the “horror film experience”. Many famous horror films have been taken apart and examined to discern what this gendered violence means for the viewer…
Although the ‘Slasher’ film springs to mind here and has been referenced in the above films, this kind of boy-kills-girl violence is not reserved specifically for the type of films that the postmodern-parodying SCREAM demonstrates (which revitalised the sub-genre in the 90s by drawing on slasher tropes from 70s and 80s classics). Psychological thrillers (KLUTE), supernatural (CARRIE), gore (THE HILLS HAVE EYES) and monster movies (DRACULA) often follow the gendered format described.
So, ultimately, if film is a way of seeing or experiencing history, and the horror genre a way of living out our fears in a controlled environment, violence against women will feature largely as it unfortunately does in real life. Being a woman – being sexually different to men – is enough to warrant punishment.
Despite all this – or perhaps consequently – there are some truly stand-out, memorably terrifying female villains that can stand shoulder to shoulder with their male co-soldiers of evil. They break the traditionally gendered horror mould and prove that all facets of the sex’s prescribed tropes can and should be explored, twisted and inverted in film (and even where they don’t, and are framed within the definitive male gaze, are still powerful stand-outs in spite of their contexts). Although there aren’t anywhere near as many, it’s quality not quantity, and there are some quality examples to dote on. These are my top 3 Femme Fear-Mongering Fatales.
Annie Wilkes (Cathy Bates) in MISERY
There is no looming figure of anti-care more terrifying than Annie: the crazed nurse who has strapped her prisoner to the bed in her spare bedroom and wants to go at his ankles with a sledgehammer to keep him immobile. This warped story sadistically plays on the fear of being helpless and at the mercy of a stranger who has physical control over you. If you make her angry her screams of “DIRTY BIRDY!” are far more effected than any swear word.
Most harrowing moment of horror: when Paul wakes up to find Annie sitting on his bed holding the knife he previously hid under the mattress. Busted!
Margaret White (Piper Laurie) in CARRIE
It is not the ‘monster’ of the film which exudes the essence of evil (Carrie herself) but her mother. Margaret is the epitome of the subordinate woman: she is convinced her sexuality is a sin, and consequently has relinquished her maternal instinct in order to punish the fruits of her sexuality (her daughter). ‘The first sin is blood’, she wails over and over again. The big, bloody enemy here is the female form itself, and Carrie’s mother is a fiery whirlwind of red-headed malice.
Most harrowing moment of horror: Miss White smiling whilst repeatedly stabbing her victim as if she’s cutting root vegetables for a nice stew.
Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?
Way back in 1962, Bette Davis and her arch nemesis Joan Crawford starred in a comeback film so dark and different from their previous star vehicle work that it’s imprinted on the film world as a cult classic. Purposefully hideous and vulgar, Baby Jane Hudson is a perverse living children’s doll that’s aged and twisted with bitterness. Like Bates in MISERY, she is the sadistic nurse attaining pleasure from torturing her crippled sister. Underneath the alarming layers of powder and lippy is a sad story and a damaged child.
Most harrowing moment of horror: Baby Jane’s OAP rendition of ‘I’ve written a letter to daddy’.