by Cary Christopher and Lisanne Harrington
This month we thought we’d do something a little different and talk about female monsters in movies. (They’re all in novels, too.)
When you hear the word “monster,” what do you picture? Dracula? Frankenstein’s monster? The Wolf Man? That word conjures up movie and TV monsters, most of whom are male. But there are plenty of female monsters in movies. You just have to look for them.
Monsters and Their Messages
What exactly is a monster? They tend to be ugly, evil, and downright scary. But they are so much more. Philosopher and Fulbright Scholar Stephen T. Asma argues that monsters are really “categorical mismatches.” Society likes labels. You are either male or female, human or animal, living or dead. But when someone or something escapes those boundaries, it makes us uncomfortable. Even more so because monsters actually allow us to consider many cultural issues, such as gender, sexuality, and racial prejudice that can seem difficult to discuss in more realistic films and literature.
Monsters usually have some sort of message for us. As we grow and evolve as a society, so do our monsters and their messages. This has led some literary analysts to create “monster theory,” which states that monsters or villainous characters can’t help but reflect cultural unease and prejudices.
Typically, female monsters have been portrayed as either predator or victim, dangerous seductress or virginal girl next door, dried up hags or sexual to the point of devouring men whole. Or else they prey on children, because even in this day and age, a childless woman in Western society is suspect. From hideous witches to sultry sirens, what makes a female monster the most terrifying is not so much that they’re evil, but rather, that they’re living outside the cultural norm. Couple that with the fear that men will be enticed by their beauty, and all hell might break loose!
What are the Female Monster Archetypes?
Stock characters run rampant through the genre. The main thing horror writers have to remember is that while archetypes are there for a reason, you must make them your own. People will toss your book aside or slide in a new Blu-ray if you give them the same old, same old. Here’s our list. Maybe you can think of others.
Often comes to Earth in search of a new planet because hers is dying. Her children take over the minds and bodies of humans and have a hive mentality. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Faculty.
The Were Animal
Not always a wolf, can be a cat or other animal. Transforms when she indulges in her passion, usually sex. Cat People, Ginger Snaps.
Part of a family of psychopaths who kill people. Oh, and they love to have them for dinner. Devil’s Rejects
Takes over a body, usually a teenage girl, often a hot cheerleader, after she is killed ritualistically and comes back to life to wreak havoc. Jennifer’s Body.
Filled with uncontrollable rage and seeks vengeance indiscriminately. The Ring.
Don’t you just love those old Hammer films? Medusa was the original mythological Gorgon, and we’re all familiar with the woman with hair of snakes. The Gorgon.
Driven by her quest for youth, the insect (who may or may not be an actual insect) is willing to do anything to stay young. Including murder. The Wasp Woman, Death Becomes Her.
Usually naïve, may be bullied. Learns of her power almost by accident. Uses it to get revenge on those who have wronged her. Carrie, Firestarter, The Lazarus Effect.
One of the most overused horror stereotypes, the zombie has been given an overhaul in Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet. This zombie is a wife, mother, and “realtor” living in the suburbs and just trying to make it through the day. One of Lisanne’s personal favorites. See also iZombie’s Liv Moore.
They look like your average woman, even two hundred years after being burned at the stake, but hide power they use for evil. Another overused stereotype. Adding humor to the mix or changing her into an average woman who prefers not to use her powers will give your witch new life. Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic (another of L’s faves.)
They’re seductive and generally use their beauty and hypnotic prowess to bring victims to their knees. Like The Zombie, this one has been done to death (pun intended ☺) but even with the glut of vampire films out there, clever authors and screenwriters find new ways to make them relevant. Let The Right One In, Dracula’s Daughter.
Putting Your Twist On It
So how do you take this list above and put your own stamp on a monster? There’s not an easy path to doing that; however, there are plenty of examples we can point to where a writer has taken the tired old archetype and made it something special. Here are a few that stand out.
In 1995, director Abel Ferrara made a black and white vampire film titled The Addiction. The screenplay was written by Nicholas St. John. What makes this film different from all of the other vampire movies out there? St. John gave his vampire a complete character arc. In fact, she’s the protagonist. Lili Taylor plays a philosophy grad student who gets bitten by a vampire. Her whole academic career has centered around studying the nature of evil and suddenly, she’s thrust into a situation where she’s becoming the very thing she despises. Watching her struggle with her newfound bloodlust, and try to come to terms philosophically with it, makes this movie stand out from the rest of the vampire movies out there. Don’t get us wrong. It’s not a perfect vampire film, but it’s a different vampire film and that’s why we’re talking about it 23 years after it came out.
Another great vampire example is Let The Right One In. It’s based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist and tells the story of a boy who’s definitely one of the outcasts at school. He’s bullied, his parents are separated and he feels like he’s an afterthought. Then he meets the girl who moved in next door. She’s his age but doesn’t go to school and only comes out at night. Do you see where this is going? The great thing about Let The Right One In is that its characters and setting make you think it should be a YA book and movie. Instead, it’s mature and scary as hell!
Make Something New
Let’s say that you don’t want to just take an archetype and run with it. Is there anything out there that doesn’t fall under these labels? Sure there is! This is by no means a complete list and if you really want to shake things up, practice a little bit of “grandma’s cooking.” You know, the dishes that always taste incredible but when you ask for a recipe grandma says, “It’s just a little of this and a little of that.”
One of Cary’s favorite movies of the last 20 years is the 2002 film, May. Written and directed by Lucky McKee, the title character is a little bit of a lot of things. She’s not quite a cannibal, not quite a witch and not exactly a telekinetic either, but she shares bits and pieces of those archetypes. In the film, May is a socially awkward young woman who’s trying to find her way in the world. She’s not blood thirsty although she doesn’t mind blood at all (she works as a surgical assistant to a veterinarian). She doesn’t have any apparent magical powers. She can’t read minds or else her life would be a lot easier. All she really wants is to make some friends and find someone she can love.
Why is this a horror movie? Well, you’ll need to see for yourself but suffice to say that May as a character is weird but actually pretty likeable. You can relate to her and you’ll find yourself empathizing with her as the movie progresses. McKee imbues his character with a depth and dimension that really drives the film home when the climax hits and as we’ve written about in these pages before, depth is key to creating a connection with your reader.
So look at the list above, pick one that piques your interest and give it a spin. We’re always looking for new things to inspire us, so feel free to share your favorite examples of horror films and books that have broken the female archetype mold.
See you next month!
Cary Christopher was born and raised in Florida and Georgia but has called Southern California home now for almost 20 years. He’s written extensively about music, movies and pop culture online and for various publications around SoCal. Now he primarily writes for his blog (www.carychristopher.com). His new novel The Wash is available on Amazon.
Link to my Amazon Authors Page: https://www.amazon.com/Cary-Christopher/e/B076FD8MJ3
After sixteen years as a paralegal, I staged a coup and left the straight-laced corporate world behind forever. I now pander to my muse, a sarcastic little so-and-so who delights in getting the voices in my head to either all speak at once in a cacophony of noise or to remain completely silent. Only copious amounts of Diet Cherry Dr. Peppers and hamburgers will ensure their complicity in filling my head with stories of serial killers, werewolves, and the things that live under your bed.
I live in SoCal, in the small town I fashioned Moonspell’s Wolf Creek after, with my beloved husband and persistently rowdy, always-has-to-have-the-last-word Miniature Pinscher, Fiona.
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