The complex roles of women in horror

Though sometimes exploitative, the genre also shows the more uncomfortable relationships between women and society

Nishat Tasfia
Published : 2 Jan 2023, 01:30 PM
Updated : 2 Jan 2023, 01:30 PM

She was about to flush the toilet. “Mother?”
She looked back. There was a head popping out of the toilet, calling for her.
The woman looked at it for a moment. Then, she flushed the toilet. The head disappeared in a rush of water.
She left the bathroom.

- The Head by Bora Chung

I started reading the book Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung last week. At the very start of the first story – The Head - our protagonist flushes down this strange being who calls her its mother without a second thought. But it keeps showing up in her toilet, every day and everywhere. To put an end to this misery, the woman’s family advises her to quit her job and marry. She obliges.

It may seem as if the idea of taking a different route in life to escape an intrusive faeces creature is silly, but in their real lives women often face similar absurd situations. Situations where they have to run away from something or someone, or change their body and mind for something considered more important than themselves and their own personhood. And horror, as a genre, often visualises these very conflicts.

It is true that horror fiction is also well known for showing women in a number of stereotypical roles such as screaming, hiding hysterics, deranged murderesses, damsels in distress, and evil seductresses. Many slasher movies show sexually active women killed in gruesome detail while the one who escapes at the end is more inexperienced and 'pure'.

This is unsurprising. Both fiction and the real-world constantly label women for their sexuality and decide their fate according to how well they fit into the norms of patriarchal society. Men police women morally and physically all the time and while creating fictional horror, they make sure women get punished, tortured, and killed for their wrongdoings and sins. Sometimes, horror movies allow men to go as far as to creatively express their sadism and misogyny by introducing novel techniques of torture.

But this genre also does a better job at handling subjects considered taboo in polite society, such as women’s bodies, their sexuality, and numerous other uncomfortable and unusual experiences of being a woman that other genres shy away from.

Horror gives space to women who are not traditionally conforming, who are perceived as ugly by the male gaze, and women who are selfish and resilient in fighting for themselves and the things they care about. It lets women characters have emotional depth, conflict, struggle, feelings of fear, and a taste of freedom.

Horror shows beautifully (or not so prettily) that women do live in fear but they can actually take control of their doomed destiny from the hands of men, ghosts, and the rotten structures of society. Sometimes women don’t succeed in escaping what chases them out of their comfort zone, but it becomes a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Horror fiction can represent the fears of women and women to fear at every age. In the Conjuring universe, or the Japanese movie Noroi, or the, Korean movie The Wailing, young prepubescent girls unexpectedly come in contact with supernatural entities. These girls then either alert the family to the evil lurking or, the evil uses these young girls to bring misfortune and death to those around them.

The juxtaposition is simple – pre-pubescent girls are supposed to be innocent and compliant. But, when possessed, as in The Exorcist, they turn violent and angry in ways that are both mysterious and dangerous to the world. At the same time, it is clear that the innocent, feeble girls are actually helpless and have to be separated from the evil that has taken over them and purified through the use of rituals. The ritual, however, has to be based on traditional acceptable beliefs tied to civilised behaviour or traditions such as religion.

Patriarchy and patriarchal media relate puberty or signs of puberty in women as monstrous and dangerous. Women’s sexuality is also seen as something that needs to be controlled or it may doom us all. Horror fiction regularly deals with subjects such as menstruation, or to even further back the sacrifices of virgin girls. Even if they are not used for sacrifice, they get alienated or shunned one way or another.

In Carrie, a sixteen years old high school student’s mother blames her period on her sins and forces her to repent for it. In The Witch, a family with a Puritan background blames their teenage daughter Thomasin for witchcraft for crimes she didn’t commit. In the book The Year of the Witching, the residents of Bethel alienate Immanuelle for her parentage and accuse her of witchcraft.

The recurring theme of blaming and isolating innocent young women is something present in both real life and fiction. In both cases, women are made monsters for the slightest affront. But, maybe, sometimes they need to become monsters to save their life and take revenge in the end.

Even though society frowns on the expression of female sexuality, it expects every woman to become a mother. We assume that every woman is inherently nurturing, and caring and wants to cherish the sweet taste of motherhood. We ostracise women who don’t want to get married and have children as selfish, deviant, and bitter. Movies like Hereditary, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Exorcist establish a connection between motherhood and surviving evil predators. In some of these movies, pregnancy causes evil to come to life. Some show that motherhood can be exhausting, and some of them want to make the audience believe that a woman’s failures in parenting give rise to evil. In the book, Just like Mother, a woman who wants to live child-free has to battle her childhood trauma related to a cult of mothers.

Society also says that women are intuitive and more in touch with their emotional side. But, if a woman uses her intuition and experience to sense danger or something out of the ordinary, men will dismiss it as hormones, delusions, hysteria, and madness.

Women in horror sleepwalk and talk in their dream about their rage, and their resentments knowing that no one is likely to take their words seriously anyway. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, The Yellow Wallpaper perfectly captures the insignificance of women’s words to men.

In a way, horror fiction listens to the stories of these women. Even when they are uncomfortable, or disturbing, or outside the bounds of what is considered normal in polite society. It gives them a space to be imperfect, nasty, grotesque, and monstrous, without the shackles of expectation and conformity. The genre may be disreputable in some regards and exploitative in others, but its positioning outside the mainstream allows it to portray the complicated contradictions that define the role of women in society.

Horror fiction can show women experiences that are simultaneously fantastical or exaggerated, while still being relatable. It can connect them. And it can show a broader audience the inner struggles that women face by depicting them directly.

This article was written for Stripe,'s special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective.