Horror’s my genre. I write, read, watch, and rewatch it. It’s been an interest since my parents allowed me to watch movies alone.

Why love horror? I think every horror fan agrees that avoiding fear lends it power and embracing fear gives us the ability to control it.

Fear kept cavemen safe. Whether it was of beasts, darkness, “stranger” humans, nature, superstitions, or the unknown, fear made their reality. Embracing fears robs it of its primitive control.

Even after coming out, I was taught to fear men. My parents knew men wouldn’t care if I were gay, and interactions warranted caution. I wasn’t paranoid, but I knew men were potentially always interested in ulterior (sexual) motives. I was on the alert for those motives.

Women are usually victims in horror. When women aren’t slaughtered, they’re emotional wrecks with little power and rarely a sense of identity other than “victim.” In horror, it seems men are predatory forces, and women are constantly threatened by them.

It’s a tiring dichotomy where every woman in horror becomes a victim. Whether its trauma or slaughter, men hurt women, and women suffer even if they survive.

Feminist horror films complicates this dichotomy in satisfying ways.

In some feminist horror films, women prey upon men (or women). In others, female characters are pitted against other forces, and whether they succeed or fail, their efforts transcend gender. Yet others challenge biological sex altogether. Finally, some feminist horror films invite new ways to challenge fears.

I hope to review key examples of this genre (as well as precursors) and explore their importance. Obviously, I can’t cover every film, but I tried my hardest to discuss as many as possible: some are discussed briefly in the same breath as another if they’re similar. Warning: spoilers for all films.

I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Teeth (2007), Last House on the Left (1972), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Bound (1996)

While these films are worth a watch, they portray revenge against men predicated by heinous acts by men. Left, Spit, and Massacre are typical 70’s exploitation (Left and Spit are very hard to watch). Teeth is a horror comedy. Bound isn’t actually horror, but a queer neo-noir with horror elements.

Blow Up (1969), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Mother! (2017)

The above films raise questions about sexism. However, if women escape, they’re still in victim roles. I recommend all because they all explore sexism. Mother! is a difficult watch.

The Descent (2005)

Sarah is devastated after an accident leaves her injured and kills her child and husband. The accident is realistic, bluntly filmed. It’s mundane horror. She really hasn’t recovered by the next annual caving trip with friends, but goes anyways. The six female spelunkers brave an unknown, unexplored cave.

These women confront the fears primitive humans confronted: the depths, the dark, the unknown, the debilitating might of nature. The awe-inspiring shots of this cave capture the natural terror such phenomenon create.

They’re not prepared for accidents that happen, or for whatever’s down there with them.

And in this impossible situation, truths about the six friends surfaces. It’s a stereotypical way to address betrayal, sure. Still, breaking someone’s leg with a pickaxe, then leaving to be consumed by primitive humanoid mutants is great revenge. The ending of this film depends on if you purchase the UK or USA DVD.

Carrie (1976)

Carrie falls under the category of “oldie but goodie” feminist horror.

Carrie White is abused by pretty, competitive female bullies at school and her psychotic, religious mother at home. She’s shy, naïve, and while she has a few friends who help, she’s not hopeful.

Mom’s abuse is physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual. The bullies visit these types of abuse on her, too.

Then Carrie discovers her powers. She’s going to the prom with Tommy whether Mom thinks it’s sinful or not. Tommy’s dating her friend, Sue, but Tommy likes Carrie as a friend. Does Carrie have a crush on Tommy? Yep. But she’s got no intention of stealing him.

The bullies have a prank prepared to ruin prom. Carrie is merciless.

When Carrie stands paralyzed in a dress stained with pig’s blood, in awe of her powers, of their chaos and destruction, I get it. She’s possessed by the might of her rage, disgust, and humiliation. Women can feel shocked when they finally feel these emotions.

Misery (1990)

I hate to pull to a twofer on America’s most successful (some say sellout) horror author, but King gets my admiration. I think his critics envy his productivity and consistency.

Paul’s a successful romance novelist who’s prepared to end his successful series and start new writing projects. He crashes his car in a blizzard, severely injuring himself. Annie Wilkes, a nurse, takes him to her remote house to heal. Annie’s a rabid Misery fan; she doesn’t want the Misery series to end. She’ll make sure Paul stays until he writes HER ending. Warning: the ankle breaking is still hard to watch.

Annie’s big, strong, brutal, tough: she’s everything a stereotypical romance novel fan shouldn’t be. Her obsession transferred from books to author. It’s like he completes her deluxe Misery collection: he’s her possession. It’s unnerving how pleasant Annie behaves when she’s not enraged about Misery. Her anger goes from zero to sixty, which is dangerous behavior.

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

Arthouse porn horror: trust Japanese filmmakers to concoct that irresistible mix. The plot was based on real events.

Prostitute Abe Sade is raped by hotel owner Kichizo Ishida. Instead of getting him arrested, Abe sparks a relationship with him that ends his marriage. Sade and Ishida are driven to increasingly more extreme sexual acts.

What makes Realm different from other porn is the passion the couple shares. Increasingly, Abe wrests control of the relationship. We realize she’s got a limitless libido and bottomless envy.

Realm never descends into smut. It follows the couple’s tumble into an obsession with risk.

What happens? One day they make a not-mistake and snuff Kichizo. What’s she do? Well…

C’mon: movie buffs know. If you haven’t heard this film’s reputation, you’re not likely ready. She…desecrates his corpse in an adult way.

The world wasn’t ready in 1976: Realm caused tangles of distribution restrictions, bans, cuts, blurs, boxes and censorship to heap controversy on the film. That controversy made it one of the most famous pornos ever.

Tame by today’s standards, the historical value of and artsy style of Realm makes it worth the watch. It’s distributed with Criterion Collection, which ought to tell you everything.

Videodrome (1983) or Dead Ringers (1988)

Feminist films aren’t just about women. Some niche horror films challenge barriers of biological sex altogether. Videodrome does this in the sexiest, most disturbing way possible.

Max is president of an aboveground Canadian controversial pornographic station. His hacker friend brings him a feed of live actors doing a hardcore torture/snuff scene. Max is impressed and instructs Harlan to pursue it.

Max starts a casual sexual relationship with on-the-air radio therapist Nicki Brand. In bed, they discover their sadomasochistic tendencies. Max becomes obsessed with illegal pornography and Nicki.

That obsession changes his perceptions and his physical body. He hallucinates Nicki in BDSM performances with him on the snuff channel. But conspiracy surrounds him and he increasingly wonders what’s controlling him.

What’s unique about Videodrome is Max experiences pleasure from his BDSM experiences whether he or Nicki are in control. To fully experience the images, Max breaches barriers of his physical sex: he grows a vagina/video slot on his abdomen. He’s submitted by allowing the intense content to interact with his body directly. It’s got a great lesson about how even consensual sex can lead to obsession, and how even normal pornography (but especially hardcore and illegal pornography) can be just as dangerous for men and women alike if it separates them from real sexual urges.

If this sounds tame, give Dead Ringers a try. It’s a lot of this but…messier with twin incest.

Antichrist (2009) or Get Out (2018)

Antichrist portrays how women emotionally abuse men, and how that opens doors to more.

A wife is hospitalized for intense grief after the couple’s infant son tumbles from a balcony and dies as the couple had sex. Her therapist husband thinks he can heal her better at an isolated cabin.

During their experimental therapy sessions, she demands violent sex to cope with guilt. They do so at the roots of an ancient tree made of female arms. The sex is clearly hurting his sanity.

While looking at photos of their dead son, he notices the boy’s shoes are on backwards. He doesn’t believe in witchcraft. He can’t escape the paranoia.

When he confronts his wife…

She inflicts sexual torture on them. To get away, he becomes savage himself.

Antichrist starts with emotional abuse and accelerates to psychological abuse to brutal sexual torture. Misogyny is turned against male characters in Antichrist. It’s a criticism of psychotherapy, which tries to fix something it can’t. The images in this hard-to-watch film are breathtaking. Warning: this film contains genital mutilation.

If that sounds like too much for you, I know this may be a strange suggestion, but I recommend you watch Get Out instead. While Out also tackles issues of race and has comedic elements, if you strip away the science fiction, it’s about psychological and emotional abuse by a network of forces conspiring against a man who’s been mislead about who he’s with and what their intentions are. That abuse leads to deeply dehumanizing experiments which could rob him of his autonomy, sanity and identity.

Martyrs (2008)

Martyrs is fictional torture. I’ve watched it twice. I won’t watch again. But Martyrs is so unique it demands commentary. Warning: don’t watch if you can’t handle hardcore torturous images.

Lucie was tortured in a slaughterhouse over a year. She escapes, is rescued, her culprits aren’t caught, she goes to an orphanage, she befriends Anna. Lucie sees an emaciated old woman everywhere.

Later, Lucie slaughters a family, convinced they’re her abusers. Lucie realizes the woman she sees represents guilt of leaving another victim behind, and knowing she’s insane, Lucie ends it.

The next day, Anna goes to the family’s house, finds an underground chamber in the living room, where there’s a terrified female captive. The captive is, understandably, insane.

The two escape, but are recaptured. An ancient matriarch of the cult arrives. Her cult believes only young women become martyrs through torture. They hope to see into the afterlife. Anna is their next experiment.

How does Martyrs qualify as feminist?

There’s a powerful twist in this story. The cult makes Anna into a Martyr. She sees the afterworld. She’s godlike. What’s she do with her knowledge?

She denies and defies the matriarch; whatever she whispers to her was too terrible to fathom.  The cult leader instructs her servant to keep doubting the afterlife before she kills herself. Though Anna has been savaged, she decides upon a Lucifer-like act of defiance.

Under the Skin (2013)

Before Scarlett Johannsen was controversial for portraying a cyborg in the live action Ghost in the Shell, she’d portrayed a non-biological being. Too bad Johannsen isn’t better known for Under the Skin, because it’s likely her most powerful performance.

Johannsen plays an emotionless alien being who doesn’t understand humanity. It resembles a woman. It needs flesh to survive; its easiest prey is men. In classic femme fatale fashion, it nourishes and learn.

Skin takes place in an eerie bubble of banter. The apex predator mimics attractiveness to lure men into isolation where a black pool consumes them alive.

The being observes humanity. What does it see? This: while empathy doesn’t work all the time, it’s an emotion most human beings have, and most operate with. Once it’s ready to empathize…

Humanity does what we do: prove it wrong.

What’s unique about Skin the statement it can make about humanity. From an outside perspective, empathy isn’t apparent in humanity, but empathy can be learned. And one can’t miss the commentary on rape: women are taught to be cautious of who they may bring home or go home with; men are not taught to be as cautious. Maybe they need to be.

Mulholland Drive (2001) or Neon Demon (2016)

Trying to explain a David Lynch film is like talking about something but you can’t remember where you lost it; you’re trying to describe it in hopes of remembering, you know you won’t.

Mulholland clings to a plot that folds through another. Two actresses portray two characters each, which seem to interact with each other, but never consciously.

In one, a woman is almost killed in an accident. She stumbles, confused, to the home of an established actress, but her niece, Betty, who’s new in Hollywood, finds her instead. The woman can’t remember her name (or anything), so she calls herself “Rita” for Rita Hayworth. They investigate Rita’s past. Meanwhile, Betty goes, hopefully, on an uncomfortable audition (she doesn’t get the part). The women end up in bed together. They say they’re in love, they make love. Rita starts speaking nonsense Spanish, they end up at a mysterious theater, then…

It’s a David Lynch film.

In the other, a depressed actress named Diane (also a waitress in the other plot) is distraught that her lesbian lover, Camilla, has left her for a male film director. She sacrificed a major role to Camilla to be her lover.

There’s more. Oh, and there’s female masturbation through enraged tears.

What’s complex about Mulholland is how it handles envy, vanity and narcissism between women, especially in Hollywood. The fact it’s contains lesbian lust doesn’t change these elements, just adds complexity. It beckons to the fantasies humans tell ourselves in the depths of our darkest moments. We imagine blissful lives just out of reach.

The Neon Demon is dreamier and contains more extreme violent images without the complex structure of Mulholland. Both films stand on their own, but could be different sides of the same album.

Suspiria (2018) and Suspiria (1977)

I know its sacrilege to think a retelling can be better than an original. But I do.

It’s East Berlin. It’s violent student rebellions, run-down industrial buildings, pollution, and a haunted school where lithe dancers train in ballet and modern dance taught by artist matrons.

An American dancer named Susie gets (and succeeds) at an audition. She’s overjoyed that her idol, the severe, beautiful Madame Blanc, teaches here.

Something’s wrong with the girl Susie’s replacing. She’s run away and gone mad.

That happens here: girls go missing or go mad.

The dancing is demanding, militarily so. It’s also sensual, acrobatic. Susie interprets such dances while another woman is pretzeled torturously in a secret room. Susie’s interpretation is so good she’s asked to dance lead in a new piece which portrays primitive folk magick with bizarre acrobatics, sharp gestures, and pre-cultural vocalizations.

Horrible accidents keep happening to students. Horrible accidents happen here.

Why Susie? What could the matrons want from her? Clearly, Madame Blanc wants more.

The remake makes a lush spectacle of dance. It’s erotic, occult, and violent (almost too violent at times). With the exception of one role, all major characters are female. The ending, which engages with a blur of violence, is a bloodbath of rich color, motion, rhythm and frenzy.

Suspiria is about feminine divine power. It will not obey anyone who cannot claim it. Such power cannot be claimed, but instead, the responsibility is a burden that must be freely accepted.

If you really want to treat yourself, watch the original first, though. Then try the Pepsi challenge.

Midsommar (2019)

More than any other, this film may be beyond analysis.

Dani’s devastated after her sister kills herself and their parents. Meanwhile, Dani’s boyfriend Christian wants to take a trip with his friends (including a Swedish friend named Pelle) to go to Pelle’s commune and attend a Midsommar celebration. Dani demands she wants to go.

The commune (cult) warmly welcomes them and other guests to the Midsommar festival…

After being honored at a feast, two 72-year-olds jump to their death from a cliff; one gets their head smashed in. The cult members mimic their screams of pain.

Dani wants to leave. Pelle convinces her his community supports every one of its members in every way. A dignified death is an honor to them. But Pelle’s clearly hiding something, and it might be his love for Dani.

Nothing is okay, but what can Dani do? She wasn’t welcomed on the trip; the other friends have their own reasons for being here. She begins to mimic the beliefs and ways of the cult.

Guests are vanishing.

Dani becomes May Queen after winning a Maypole competition under the influence of drugs. Christian is drugged and forced to have sex with a female cult member. He’s incapacitated like all the other guests were.

Nine deaths will purge the community of all evil for another 90 years. Four are cult members, four are guests, and the May Queen chooses the last sacrifice: Christian or a cult member.

Dani’s spiritual awakening is so complex. Was Christian a terrible boyfriend? Yes, but he didn’t deserve to be burnt alive. Did her friends treat her badly? Yes; they didn’t deserve to be mutilated. What’s most mentioned about this film are the extreme images in it (and there are many), but Dani’s expression at watching Christian die, one of mixed horror and joy, is the most terrifying of all. Still, this profoundly disturbing film is well worth a watch.


I have hope that the recent renaissance in feminist horror films will invite new discourse into how we portray fear in film and consider, ultimately, what we have to fear. For too long, men have been pinned as primary threats again women in horror. Intelligent horror creatives should know that they can explore new avenues where men are not always threats and women are not always targets.