Even at a young age, I drew definitive lines for myself when it came to horror movies. I swore off the Friday the 13ths because the first not only plagued me with nightmares since my sneaky eyes caught it at a way-too-young age, but it also helped give me a healthy fear of the rural darkness. Yet I adored the Nightmare on Elm Street series -- whether I was watching the film drastically cut for Saturday afternoon TV or renting the flicks in their full horrific glory. It was campy fun, and I always figured that a mixture of laughs and horror was the magic mix that made things interesting. But there was another reason I made a distinction, one that didn't become clear until much later in life.
I adored Debbie Stevens and Alice Johnson, Sydney Prescott and Tatum Riley because they didn't just scream and quiver -- even if they didn't survive. They fought in a real, flawed, and human way. They weren't some sort of Kill Bill gang of women wildly skilled and powerful. They simply did what they could, and if they were lucky enough to survive the first few rounds, their fighting prowess would grow accordingly.
They were scared -- who wouldn't be? -- but they didn't let fright immobilize them. They were a nice and welcome comfort in a world where women usually were good for nothing but screams and bloody death.
While Jamie Lee Curtis is known as the quintessential Scream Queen, her Laurie Strode also earned a much more impressive title: The First Girl to Fight Back. She wasn't given a whole lot to work with, but she made due with knitting needles and coat hangers. Following closely on the heels of Strode and Halloween -- just one year later -- came Ridley Scott's Alien, which took the idea of a woman fighting back and expanded it into a whole new universe. The film won an Oscar for Best Effects, but the aspect of the film that really sticks in the mind of cinephiles is Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. She became an icon of strength and one of the most notable heroes in the horror genre.
From there, the women who fight back continued to rise in popularity, becoming a staple in a myriad of horror films. Most of Nightmare on Elm Street dealt with girls finding strength and fighting back, which spiraled into a seemingly unending vortex of sequels. Scream plotted a whole trilogy (and now horror revamp) based on the girl who doesn't let murderous killers take over her life, even after the deaths of many friends, killer boyfriends, and enough dysfunction to crazy up the best of us.
But I have to back up a second, before the time of Wes Craven's Woodsboro, to the year of the strong horror women -- 1991. On the more action-oriented side of things, Terminator 2: Judgment Day saw Sarah Connor morphing into a female slab of machine-battling muscle. She instantly became an awesome, kickass heroine, who not only earned a spot in fans' hearts, but also award fervor. And that wasn't the only big-winning, girl butt-kicking flick of the year -- there was also the other big Oscar winner, The Silence of the Lambs. Suddenly, a strong woman facing a sadistic killer was a theme worthy of an Academy Award. (A nice jump forward from Janet Leigh, Jamie's mom, who earned a nod for screaming her way to infamous death in Psycho.)
Sure, there have been backlashes to the trend -- most notably the eruption of torture porn that has relied on marketing techniques of tortured and mutilated women -- but the women who fight back continues to be a staple in all things horror. Thank god. Can you imagine a world where every horror movie still has the grotesque killer hunting down the helpless woman? It's boring and antiquated.
The fact of the matter is, it's rare to have a good murderer these days -- a great gore fest -- without women (and men) who fight back in some way, shape, or form. Just like masses ridicule those who hunt in large, gated forest pumped full of prey, it's hard to look seriously on a cinematic world where victims just run upstairs, cower in the corner, and wait to be sliced and diced.
In honor of Halloween, Halloween, and all those that fight in the darkness: Who's your serial killer-busting female fighter?
Me, I will always have a soft spot for one who didn't pop up in the sequels -- Rose McGowan's Tatum Riley.