Graveyard Shift

Female Leads In Horror That Defined The Genre  

Jodi Smith
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Horror has always been a reflection of the world we live in, from the fear of the unknown made flesh to the hidden evil residing within mankind. Women in horror, in its early days, were often used as pawns in the fight between good an evil, with monsters like Dracula or King Kong stealing them to spur a male hero to action. Others were the evil creatures, using their feminine wiles to seduce innocent victims or deny men their desires, with heinous consequences. As times changed, so did the roles of women in the genre.

The idea of a woman being specifically punished for her sexual independence or "unladylike" behavior became the crux of many horror films in the '60s and '70s. The 1980s found sexually active women routinely punished, while those who remained virginal were "rewarded" with survival. Those conventions were subverted in the '90s, as the strong female lead was firmly embraced, a trend that has continued through the early decades of the 21st century.

Janet Leigh is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Female Leads In Horror That Defined The Genre
Photo:  Paramount Pictures

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was iconic for many reasons, including the shocking twist of an ending. Janet Leigh's role as Marion Crane was also something of an anomaly for the 1960 moviegoing public, as she gets offed halfway through the movie despite initially appearing to be the main character. Marion embezzles $40,000 from a client before using a lunch break to skip town. Viewers stay with Marion as she arrives at Bates Motel, meets the awkward Norman Bates, and learns about his unhealthy relationship with his mother.

Unfortunately for Marion, her decision to return the stolen money is cut short by Mrs. Bates stabbing her as she showers. That scene became one of the genre's most celebrated while Marion's fate revealed horror's propensity to punish women for their transgressions.

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Mia Farrow is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Female Leads In Horror That Defined The Genre
Photo:  Paramount Pictures

Rosemary's Baby hit theaters in 1968, starring Mia Farrow as the title character. The film follows Rosemary, portrayed as an independent woman and housewife, as she slowly loses herself to the whims of the people around her and becomes entangled in a satanic cult. She is chosen by Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer) to carry the devil's child, possibly because of her strong-willed nature.

Rosemary is haunted by memories of a nightmarish conception by a demon, but her protests and thoughts are all brushed away as stress, delusions, or silliness by everyone around her. As long as she complies with Minnie's control of the pregnancy, all will supposedly be well. Rosemary's attempts to seek outside help - or even escape - always deliver her right back where she started, as her husband and self-assigned caretakers are perpetually given the benefit of the doubt against Rosemary's increasingly frightened state of mind. The ultimate punishment for the pixie-haired heroine comes after she gives birth to the Antichrist, as she's coerced into nurturing instead of destroying him.

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Jessica Harper As Suzy Bannion In 'Suspiria'
Jessica Harper As Suzy Bannion... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Female Leads In Horror That Defined The Genre
Photo:  International Classics Inc.

Dario Argento's 1977 classic Suspiria features the shy, quiet Suzy (Jessica Harper), who arrives at a ballet school in Germany just as the unexplained (and fatal) goings-on within its walls are beginning to accelerate. From the start, Suzy knows something is amiss, but her suspicions are held at bay by the tough but gregarious Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) - despite the similar misgivings of her new friend Sara (Stefania Casini). Eventually, after a growing list of disappearances, passings, druggings, and all-around inexplicable events, Suzy and Sara resolve to investigate.

When Sara eventually goes missing, Suzy sets out to seek answers once and for all. Once she learns the truth about the coven controlling the dance academy, Suzy takes matters into her own hands. She slays the head witch - destroying the others in the process, not to mention the building - then escapes into the rain with a bemused but triumphant smile on her face.

Jamie Lee Curtis is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Female Leads In Horror That Defined The Genre
Photo:  Compass International Pictures

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) defined a new era of horror heroines. John Carpenter's Halloween was released in 1978 with the simple premise of a masked slayer stalking a babysitter. Laurie is a normal teenager who's taken a babysitting gig on Halloween night, while her friends are out with their significant others. A silent slasher by the name of Michael Myers disrupts those plans, making his presence known (from a distance) on the day in question and then springing into knife-wielding action after sundown. Laurie's radar is already up, but she's presumably being saved for last. That at least gives her the opportunity, once she knows for sure what's going on, to safeguard the children she's responsible for and use her wits to fight back.

As the Halloween series progressed over the years, there were several different approaches for how to handle Laurie's future; she was declared dead, then returned years later as a woman hiding under an assumed identity. Although the events of Halloween H20 depict a shellshocked version who drinks too much, she is eventually able to overcome her fears to take on her long-time stalker once again. When the franchise rewrote its mythology in 2018, doing away with every movie but the 1978 original, Curtis's iconic character was reimagined as a resourceful, gun-toting survival who's more than prepared for Michael Myers's inexorable return to Haddonfield.

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