The Feminist Roots of Classic Horror Movies

The horror genre has been criticized for its portrayal of women as passive, helpless victims. However, some of the earliest horror movies were actually informed by feminist perspectives. In this article, we will examine how classic horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s laid the groundwork for feminist critiques of horror and how they continue to inspire female filmmakers today.

The Impact of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often regarded as the first science fiction novel, but it also has a significant impact on the horror genre. The story, which is about a scientist who creates life from dead tissue, is concerned with the ethics of scientific advancement and the consequences of playing God. In many ways, Frankenstein echoes feminist critiques of patriarchal power structures. Shelley’s novel explores the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his monster in terms of the power dynamics between men and women in society. The monster represents a challenge to Victor’s masculinity, and his inability to control it leads to destruction. This theme would continue to be explored in later horror films, such as Bride of Frankenstein.

The Role of Women in Universal Horror Movies

Universal Pictures dominated the horror genre during the 1930s and 1940s, producing classic films like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man. These films were highly influential and set the standard for horror movies for decades to come. What is often overlooked, however, is the role that women played in these movies.

In movies like Dracula and The Mummy, female characters are often portrayed as passive victims, waiting to be rescued by male heroes. However, there are also instances where female characters are more active and independent. In The Bride of Frankenstein, for example, Elsa Lanchester portrays the monster’s mate, and while she doesn’t have much dialogue, she is a powerful figure. She rejects the monster, demanding that he prove himself to her before she will accept him. In doing so, she challenges the traditional gender roles that were typical of films from this period.

The Horror Heroine: An Evolution

In the 1970s and 1980s, the horror genre experienced a renaissance, thanks in large part to the rise of the slasher film. These movies were often criticized for their gratuitous violence and misogynistic tone, but they also featured a new kind of female protagonist. The “final girl” trope, which refers to the last survivor of a slasher movie, is often seen as empowering for women. These characters are often resourceful and brave, using their wits to outsmart the killer. Films like Halloween and Friday the 13th helped to popularize this trope, but they were not the first movies to feature strong female leads in horror.

Movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now, which were released in the late 1960s and early 1970s, gave audiences complex female characters who were not defined solely by their relationships to men. In Rosemary’s Baby, Mia Farrow plays a young woman who learns that her husband has made a deal with the devil to advance his career. Meanwhile, in Don’t Look Now, Julie Christie plays a grieving mother who begins to see visions of her dead daughter. Both of these movies were critical and commercial successes and helped to pave the way for the horror heroines of the 1980s.

The Feminist Legacy of Classic Horror Movies

While horror movies are often criticized for their treatment of women, it’s important to recognize the ways in which feminist perspectives have influenced the genre. Movies like Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein helped to lay the groundwork for later feminist critiques of horror, and characters like Laurie Strode from Halloween and Sidney Prescott from Scream have become iconic feminist heroines.

Furthermore, female filmmakers continue to be inspired by the classic horror movies of the past. Filmmakers like Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) and Karyn Kusama (The Invitation) have cited movies like Rosemary’s Baby as major influences on their work. These movies continue to resonate with audiences because they tap into universal fears and anxieties, while also challenging gender roles and power structures.

In conclusion, while classic horror movies have often been criticized for their portrayal of women, it’s important to recognize the ways in which these movies have also been informed by feminist perspectives. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the horror heroines of the 1980s and beyond, women have been a significant presence in the horror genre, both on and off-screen. By acknowledging this legacy, we can better appreciate the ways in which horror movies have pushed boundaries and challenged social norms.