It is openly understood that horror is perhaps one of the most problematic genres, especially when it comes to representation of women. Most female leads in horror-oriented fiction or film are either oversexed idiots that die early on in the game, or bird-brained nitwits that easily fall into a monster’s trap. That is, if they appear at all; they are usually relegated to the sidelines, merely another mangled corpse to add to the body count.
Despite this blatant disregard for women and the genre’s casual misogyny, there are a number of badass heroines that have captured the public’s imagination. Here is a list of the most powerful and terrifying leading ladies in horror, who break stereotypes and don’t mind getting their hands a little dirty – or bloody.
Perhaps one of the most terrifying – and heartbreaking – heroines ever created. Stephen King gave us a character that was both delicate and vulnerable, and horrifyingly vindictive.
Carrie is a sensitive teen girl raised by a scarily fundamentalist mother, and taunted mercilessly by her classmates. Between school and her abusive home life, she doesn’t have a respite. Carrie slowly comes to the realization that she has supernatural powers, entailing an uncanny ability to wreak havoc using her mind.
Dealing with the twin travails of growing into womanhood and trying to fit in, things get especially dark and violent once she lets her guard down, falling for the charms of kind, popular guy Tommy Ross, and goes with him to prom.
Of course, the infamous ending of Carrie need not be repeated, but her wild revenge on a bunch of snotty, uncaring, and abusive group of people at prom is, while sickening, made all the more haunting because it is easy for readers to empathize.
Carrie’s attempt to find a measure of love and understanding in a deeply selfish and misogynistic world remains eerily resonant till this day, and makes her one of the most interesting and multi-faceted heroines in horror history.
2. Clarice Starling
Jodie Foster aptly summarized her character’s enduring appeal with the following sentence:
“…this may be one of the first times that I have seen a female hero that is not a female-steroid version of Arnold Schwarzenegger … Clarice is very competent and she is very human. She combats the villain with her emotionality, [her] intuition, her frailty and vulnerability. I don’t think there has ever been a female hero like that.”
Indeed, Clarice Starling, the main character of Silence of the Lambs, remains a landmark in both literature and cinema, as another terrific heroine with whom audiences and readers continue to identify with.
FBI agent Clarice is charged with fending off the maniacal Dr. Hannibal Lector, and finding Buffalo Bill before he tortures and murders his next victim. Quietly methodical, intelligent, and determined, Clarice embodied a new kind of heroine, one who did not have to resort to empty bravado to ensure that she got the job done. She was also incredibly vulnerable, making her extremely relatable. At the end of the story, having earned the brazen Lector’s respect, and defeating Buffalo Bill, audiences were left with a hero for the ages.
The youngest heroine on this list is Coraline. She is a character envisioned by writer Neil Gaiman, in his novella of the same name. Curious, resourceful, and brave, Coraline is put in a terrible situation when she finds a strange portal that leads her to a bizarre version of her world.
At first, she enjoys being around a family that seem to eschew all the things she previously found annoying or disrespectful to the precocious girl’s autonomy. But she quickly learns that there is something incredibly dark and eerie in this alternate universe, and she must escape immediately.
Unafraid of facing even the creepiest monsters, and always in possession of a smart comeback for those who constantly minimize her as being “small for her age,” Coraline is one of the most adventurous and fearless people you are likely to come across.
4. Jennifer from Day of the Woman, a.k.a I Spit on Your Grave
One of the most controversial exploitation flicks of all time, this 1978 film arguably possesses one of the most underrated characters in horror.
A young writer, Jennifer, is brutally raped and left for dead by four men. Much to their surprise, she finds the strength to systematically hunt them down one by one, thereby exacting a terrible vengeance.
Notorious for the blood curdling and hard to watch rape scenes, the film was panned upon release, only to become a sort of cult feminist classic later on. While some still find the unsavory scenes in which Jennifer is horrifically debased counterintuitive and all too emblematic of the exploitation / slasher genre, it is undeniable that her search for revenge is fascinatingly prescient.
5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
No list about badass horror heroines would be complete without a tip of the hat to Buffy. Star of the cult TV series, Buffy remains one of the strongest and most complex fictional creations. Ever.
Starting out as a somewhat frivolous popular cheerleader-type, Buffy’s life takes a turn when she is tasked with saving the world from evil vampires, witches, and scores of other monsters thrown her way over the course of the show’s run. Surrounded by a tight circle of friends, Buffy was strong in the sense that not only could she physically hurt hideous creatures without breaking a sweat, but she was a fully-rounded character that possessed weaknesses and vulnerabilities that made her all the more relatable.
Buffy fell in love, got dumped, stood up for her friends, and faced a number of tragedies as the show traced her path to adulthood – all while protecting the world. Sadly, a character like Buffy remains an anomaly in pop culture, and heroines who echo her legacy are few and far between.
On the Lookout
So, while there are a few other great heroines left off the list – Laurie Strode of Halloween fame, or Sally Hardesty from Texas Chainsaw Massacre – it can be argued that horror is still in need of female characters that are not just femme fatale types, or side characters without an arc of their own. If you have a favorite heroine that was criminally left off this list, let us know!