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20 Most Essential Female-Led Horror Films

Updated April 16, 2021 6.6k votes 788 voters 18.3k views22 items

List RulesVote up the female-led movies you think everyone should watch.

When people think of strong female leads, they may recall films such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider or perhaps The Hunger Games. While those are both great examples of female action heroes, horror films with female leads are also a common thing.

Since the early days of the genre, horror films and women screaming in terror have gone hand in hand. What started with "scream queens" - conventionally beautiful, terrified women who are usually rescued by men before the end of horror films - eventually turned to “final girls” or females who survive horror movie villains and live to tell the story of what happened.

Like scream queens, final girls start out as damsels in distress, but modern final girls are strong enough to survive using their intelligence and brawn instead of by depending on a male to rescue them. More and more of these strong female horror films are making their way to the mainstream and to the horror streaming app Shudder, which you can check out for a free seven-day trial and costs a fraction of a movie ticket ($4.99/month) afterwards. 

The best female-led horror films tend to feature this new breed of final girls, as it's always exciting to see seemingly hopeless victims rescue themselves. 

  • Released in 1979, Alien was far before its time with the role of badass sci-fi heroine Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). At the start of the film, Ripley is a fairly ordinary warrant officer who at times shows fear and vulnerability, making her relatable in many ways. Ripley's normality helps her stand out from the crowds of super-powered babes common to sci-fi stories of the time, and it's doubly satisfying to watch a seemingly unremarkable hero rise to the challenge and overcome her situation. 

    While in retrospect, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Weaver playing Ripley, it’s a fun Alien fact that the part was written with a male in mind. Weaver went on to reprise the role in several Alien sequels. 

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  • In the original 1978 Halloween, 17-year-old Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is both the primary protagonist and the final girl. Strode, a babysitter watching a young boy on Halloween, ends up being stalked by madman Michael Myers who brutally murders her best friends.

    Strode repeatedly defends herself against Myers using homespun weapons such as a knitting needle, a knife, and a wire hanger, but Myers survives all the attacks and ends up attempting to strangle Strode. Thankfully, she's saved in the film's ending; Dr. Samuel Loomis shoots Myers off a balcony. You can watch the original final girl kick ass over on Shudder, the best app for horror fans. 

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  • When most people think of A Nightmare on Elm Street, they think of Freddy Krueger, a burnt up predator who uses his glove with razor blades to kill teens while they’re asleep. However, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) is just as crucial as Krueger. Thompson is your typical final girl in that she is innocent and unassuming, but her role is so much more than that. She’s exceptionally courageous, uses her brain to try to outsmart Krueger, and she accomplishes her goals in many ways.

    Thompson figures out she can wake up while dreaming and also bring items back from her dreams. She sets up traps around her house to slow down Krueger and even captures him in her basement before pouring gasoline on him and setting him on fire.

    Thompson doesn’t become the final girl by chance (or due to a man saving her). Instead, she uses her intelligence to defeat Krueger. Langenkamp went on to play Nancy in both Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and New Nightmare.

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  • Video: YouTube

    Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) grows up in the care of an ultra-conservative religious mother who teaches her to fear sex and boys. In school, White stands out due to her modest clothing and humble attitude. Her shy demeanor makes her an easy target for bullying and ridicule, as other students know she won’t do anything to stand up for herself.

    White finally has enough after her peers pour pigs' blood on her during prom. Using her telekinetic powers, White explodes into a powerful fury, causing the school gym to catch fire. She proceeds to lock the doors and walk home. On the way, two surviving students attempt to run White over, but she uses her powers to make the car flip and explode, killing the passengers.

    Despite surviving the prom ordeal, White dies in the end with her mother after she loses control of her telekinetic powers and sets her house on fire - or does she? The sole prom survivor, Sue, is seen at the end of the film leaving flowers at White’s burned down home, and a bloody arm reaches out for her from under the rubble. The next scene shows Sue waking up from a nightmare, screaming.

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