If you’ve seen any horror movie, it’s no secret some of our favorite classics fall into sexist tropes, most often with the final girl in slashers being innocent and virginal while her counterpart that engages in “sinful” behavior gets the ultimate punishment.
Instead of submitting to the male gaze, these feminist horror flicks and thrillers pave a way forward for the genre, one that encourages complex female relationships, destigmatizes female sexuality and fights to avenge patriarchal society that has oppressed these female heroines for ages.
Here are 13 feminist horror movies to kick off spooky season, because what’s scarier than not defeating the patriarchy?
“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” elevated the horror genre with its feminist focus by centering on themes of autonomy and rape culture. Mia Farrow stars as Rosemary, a young woman married to Guy as the pair move into a new apartment building rumored to be haunted, and their introduction to their elderly neighbors who are plagued by death and tragedy doesn’t help. Things escalate when Rosemary becomes pregnant and a strange hallucination of Satan haunts her. Tortured with pain from the pregnancy, even Rosemary herself becomes terrified to wonder what this baby will do if it’s born. While the heroine consistently has her taken autonomy away from her, she never stops fighting to regain control and the film’s conclusion leaves her in a position of power.
Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” made waves by unveiling the fear held by men of women wielding too much power onto the big screen in the adaptation of Stephen King’s 1973 book. Upon her first period, Carrie discovers she has psychic powers, but is unsure how to navigate her next chapter in adolescence due to her highly sheltered and Christian upbringing. After being targeted by the school bully and eventually being the subject of a dumping of pig’s blood, Carrie gets revenge by setting fire to the gym. While some dispute “Carrie’s” feminist agenda due to its misogynist roots and its pessimistic ending, it stands as a prime example of reclaiming power in a world set up for women to fail.
Wes Craven’s “Scream” is recognized as a horror staple for its satirization of the genre, but also been praised for its feminist angle. The slasher flick centers on Sidney Prescott and her friends as they are plagued by a killer wearing a Ghostface costume, satirizing the sub genre that inspired the likes of “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th.” However, instead of falling into the trope that rewards a young woman who refuses to fall into temptation by crowning her the final girl, “Scream” avoids this trope and refuses to pit the female friends against each other. Ultimately, death befalls the group but doesn’t use the tragedy as a way to ward off teenage girls from engaging in “sinful” behavior.
“The Stepford Wives” (2004)
Before “Don’t Worry Darling” there was “The Stepford Wives.” TV executive Joanna, played by Nicole Kidman, moves with her husband from the big city to the suburb of Stepford, where crisp, manicured lawns mirror the perfection of the town’s women, who seem a bit too put together to Joanna. Struggling to adjust to the change, she grows suspicious of community and attempts to crack Stepford’s secret. Like its predecessors, the film toys with the women’s autonomy as the prim and proper housewives are controlled by their husbands only to satisfy their needs, reflecting the growing concern of women’s liberation amongst men.
“Jennifer’s Body” (2009)
Despite its limited success upon release, “Jennifer’s Body” has become a cult classic praised for empowering women through its vengeful tale. Megan Fox stars as Jennifer, who becomes possessed by a demon and is compelled to murder her male classmates by seducing them. At the same time, however, her best friend attempts to stop her and reveal her true self. Like “Scream,” the dark comedy addressed the taboo of teen sex, undoing the notion that young women who engage in sex are doomed to death, a message prevalent in other horror films of the time, while also portraying the complexities of teenage female friendship.
“Gone Girl” (2014)
While “The Stepford Wives” takes anxieties of heterosexual suburban life to the extreme, “Gone Girl” takes a more realistic look at what it means to be trapped in a life you don’t see as your own any longer. Nick and Amy have a seemingly perfect marriage to outsiders — until Amy abruptly goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. Police arrive to investigate the violent scene at their home with no Amy in sight, but their investigation creates more questions than answers and leaves Nick appearing guilty — just as Amy had planned. In fact, Amy crafted each step with precision and thought to reclaim her life and her marriage just how she pleased, leaving Nick to feel guilty for the role he’s played in lessening her happiness. David Fincher’s adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel is biting up through the final frame.
“The Babadook” (2014)
A departure from overt feminist messaging, “The Babadook” gets its message across slowly and subversively through its female point of view. Amelia raises her son, Sam, alone in the wake of her husband’s death and one night, Amelia reads Sam a storybook called Mister Babadook. The monster’s disturbing appearance bothers both Amelia and Sam, as Sam struggles to sleep while being plagued with images of the figure. While Amelia comforts her son, strange events arise and lead to a confrontation where Amelia uses all her courage to protect her and her son. Despite the figure’s intimidating existence, the film hinges on Amelia’s experience as a single mother while inserting themes of grief, loss and mental health.
“A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” (2014)
“A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” adds to the stereotypical femme fatale trope by showcasing female power that goes beyond seduction with the added twist of a love story. A young man named Arash struggles with taking care of his heroin-addicted father who is threatened by a drug dealer until a mysterious woman saves Arash by attacking and killing the dealer. The woman, who his secretly a vampire and spends her time listening to music alone, finds companionship with Arash and resists her urge to sink her teeth into his skin. The film differentiates itself from other horror movies that limit female autonomy by giving the woman protection to move throughout the night without fear, even serving as a protector to her lover.
“The Witch” (2015)
“The Witch” revisits the age old attack on women believed to be witches with a modern and satisfying twist. After a family is rejected from their Puritan community after a religious dispute in 1630s New England, they are forced to fend for themselves, building their own farm and harvesting their own crops. Teenage Thomasin comes of age in this period of uncertainty and struggles to desire the what her parents want for her: marriage and children. Against the background of a misogynist society that sees women who don’t fall into the traditional role of motherhood, Thomasin’s determination to create her own path is a freeing rebellion from societal norms.
Jordan Peele’s second directorial feature “Us” represented another crucial step in horror by centering Black women, a group that is often underrepresented in many genres, but especially in horror. The film, which had the highest grossing opening weekend of a film with a Black female lead ever, stars Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson, a mother and wife who travels to Santa Cruz, CA for a family vacation. The relaxing getaway quickly goes awry when the family becomes tormented by doppelgängers who threaten Adelaide, her husband and their children.
Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” documents the spiraling events that take place after a troubled couple visit a commune in Sweden to celebrate the midsummer festival. Despite the horror that ensues, the community presents a fairly matriarchal society, with women in positions of spiritual, sexual and societal authority. Though the rituals might be disturbing at times, the film’s embrace of womanhood is refreshing.
“Last Night in Soho” (2021)
Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho” centers on Ellie, a fashion student who dreams of the fantastic era of the ’60s. Despite her sunny attitude, Ellie faces a darkness, plagued by her mother’s ghost that manifests itself in visions of her mother. When the reality of being a student in gritty London is a bit harsher than expected, Ellie’s dreams transform her into Sandie, a singer trying to make a name for herself in 1960s London. What begins as a fantasy quickly turns sinister when Ellie becomes tangibly involved in Sandie’s pain, leading Ellie to unveil the violent crimes that are closer to her present than she previously thought. The film exposes the ever-present men that torment the young women, both in the past and the present, and better yet, avenges the crimes they committed.
“Promising Young Woman” (2020)
“Promising Young Woman” turns the nonsensical claim that those accused of sexual assault are “promising young men” and shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions on its head. Cassie is perfectly content with her life after dropping out of med school: being a barista by day and pretending to be blackout drunk at bars to teach a lesson to men who try to take advantage of her. Despite her hesitancy to trust men, a former crush urges her to be a bit more hopeful and she takes the leap while maintaining her unknown revenge plot. When her new relationship becomes intertwined with the ghosts of her past, she compromises her safety to take one last stab at achieving justice.