Not a Damsel: Female Agency in Today’s Horror

The horror genre has, of course, evolved since the days of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (friendly reminder that the genre itself was, indeed, established by a woman–consider, though, that she wrote from a man’s perspective which surely contributed to the novel’s success). But I would argue there’s still progress to be made. Even some of the timeless classic films hinge on the idea that the “token blonde” dies first, or is the only one to die at all, or has to be saved by a man, or serves no purpose other than to be viewed as a sexual object (see Creature of the Black Lagoon or My Bloody Valentine for reference). Supernatural, which has aired on the CW for over a decade, doesn’t usually feature female characters for more than one or two seasons, and it’s almost always the three principal men who save the world from destruction.

But I digress. Instead of listening who’s done it wrong, I’m going to take some time to tell you what to watch and listen to for good, scary fun that does women right. Don’t cover your eyes for these–you won’t want to miss them.

The Exorcist (TV, 2015–present)

In case my article for JustAboutWrite didn’t make it clear, The Exorcist is my new obsession. It’s both a fitting tribute to and a much-needed departure from the 1973 horror film on which it is based. The premise: two priests work together to fight off demons and dark forces that are creeping their way into the very foundation of the Catholic Church. Let’s talk briefly about how it deals with women and agency (Spoilers ahead!).

Think about the most terrifying aspects of the original film. Regan Macneil, the picture of female innocence, is completely stripped of control as the demon Pazuzu gradually takes her over. It’s important to note that William Peter Blatty’s original book detailed a boy’s possession. So I can’t help but wonder–why might the film’s creators have changed the gender of the possessed child? Was the corruption of a young girl so much worse to imagine? Would a young boy have been able to fight off temptation?

In the end, it’s Father Karras, in a heroic display of self-sacrifice, who takes on the demon himself and dies with it inside him. The resolution of his crisis of faith saves Regan. The possession is about her, but her fate depends on him.

I think that, by contrast, the Exorcist TV show gives women the opportunity to save themselves. There are many examples of this throughout both seasons of the show, but I’d like to focus on one in particular. Mid-season one, we discover that Angela Rance, the mother of Casey Rance, whose possession case Father Marcus and Father Tomas are investigating, is actually Regan herself all grown up. Pazuzu has returned to pick up what he’d started in Georgetown in the 1970s.

But this time, while Tomas and Marcus are there to help–and they do–it’s up to Angela to rid herself and her family of the demon. She faces Pazuzu in the ultimate mental showdown in the finale, and through the strength of her faith and the love for her family, she prevails. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet ending, the point of which being that the Rances are able to move on from the tragedy of what Casey experienced–and Angela/Regan herself is able to finally start a new chapter in her life.

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source: sancriss @ tumblr

I would argue that this first season of the show is a redemption for young Regan, who never got the opportunity to speak up about what happened to her at the film’s conclusion. In addition, we see the possession from the perspective of Casey herself as she continually tries to fight off the demon–a point of view we didn’t get much of in the original film. Women are not mere objects meant to represent purity and innocence in this show–despite what they face, they ultimately end up in control of their lives. It’s a subversion of the “corruption of innocence” trope in a lot of paranormal media, and it’s extremely powerful to watch.

You can (and should) catch up on The Exorcist via Hulu or FOXNow.

The Conjuring (film series, 2013–present)

Most people local to New England at least know of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the renowned twentieth century demon-fighting duo. At 91, Lorraine is still called upon to bless houses and lend her psychic abilities to paranormal investigations. Whether or not you consider the couple’s repertoire a scam is another discussion, but what they claim to have experienced has been turned into the fairly successful Conjuring movies.

When the first Conjuring film was released, I was impressed with its ability to stand out in what many consider a low-brow genre. More than that, though, it’s taken the very real Lorraine Warren and made the interpretation of her character into a protagonist with agency, not just a vessel for demonic messaging and jump-scares.

Vera Farmiga portrays Lorraine Warren, who’s rounded out in the films not only through her relationship with her husband Ed, but also through her role as a mother and, simply, as someone who’s had to “other” herself because of her clairvoyance. The films draw upon her fears and anxieties (i.e., losing her family) as well as her strengths (i.e., her innate empathy). The second film in particular deals with her anxiety around the dangers of her work, allowing the audience to connect with her as a real character as opposed to a one-dimensional character swooping in to save the day.

In The Conjuring II, Lorraine meets her fears head-on by confronting a demon that has played upon her insecurities. In order to save the Hodgson family–and her husband –she takes on the demon torturing the family and speaks its name. Per Catholic beliefs, knowing the name of a demon allows you to wield power over it.

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source: nestje @ tumblr

Lorraine speaks the demon’s name, and she does it alone. She saves Ed and saves the family. I’d say for a mainstream film series that takes place in the 1960s and 1970s, that’s a pretty big win for the genre.

Both Conjuring films can be purchased and streamed on Amazon.

The Black Tapes Podcast (audio, 2015–2017)

Keeping with the paranormal theme, I want to direct a podcast to those of you who want something to listen to on long car rides (though I’d advise you not to listen at night…). The Black Tapes is a three-season audio drama by Pacific Northwest Stories (PNWS) narrated by our trusty protagonist, Alex Reagan (no, the name isn’t lost on me…), the journalist delving into the occult through a series of unsolved mysteries.

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Part of what made the show so successful is the dynamic between Alex and the elusive man she’s investigating, Dr. Richard Strand–one of vague distrust that transforms into comfortable camaraderie with a balance between following logic and following the heart.

But I think a huge part of what kept people listening–and what encourages people to pick up the show now–is the well-rounded portrayal of Alex. She is quick to call out Dr. Strand for being cynical or relying too much on logic, but instead of building arguments strictly around emotion she builds them with detailed research. The entire story about Dr. Strand, his black tapes, and the conspiracies weaved into the bigger picture is told from Alex’s perspective. We discover each new piece of the puzzle when she does, and when something doesn’t feel right to her, she sets out to figure it out on her own.

Alex doesn’t just watch the story, though. She drives the story, uncovering secrets even Strand himself couldn’t have found alone. Alex deals with her own personal demons throughout the show, too, grounding the seemingly supernatural storyline in very human elements.

You can listen to The Black Tapes here or wherever you listen to podcasts.

It Follows (film, 2014)

About halfway through It Follows, I still wasn’t entirely sure whether I liked it or not. It was different than anything else I’d seen in the genre in terms of subject, tone, cinematographic choices, direction…all of it. But it didn’t take me long after the end credits began to roll to appreciate the film’s subversion of the “sex is death” trope that’s permeated horror for decades.

We see the film through the eyes of Jay, a young woman who appears to be followed by an evil entity after having (consensual) sex with a boy. She ultimately learns that she’s been cursed, and the only way to rid the curse is to pass it on to someone else. The allegorical significance of sex associated with death and disease is fairly obvious here, but Jay’s journey throughout the movie is something I was pleasantly surprised by.

Instead of watching Jay deal with all this on her own for the entirety of the movie, we see her work through her demons with a support system. While the other women I’ve referenced in this post have had to deal with issues largely alone, I’m calling out Jay and It Follows for the fact that the protagonist actually reaches out for help. Specifically, she has family and friends that do not blame her for what she’s going through. They don’t judge her, and Jay doesn’t have to feel like many women who are vilified in today’s society for being open about their sexuality.

The ending of the film is ambiguous, which to me is another aspect of its profoundness. Ultimately, we see that the supernatural entity–the origins of which we never become privy to, and don’t really need to–is still following her. But, as Jay holds hands with Paul and walks down the street in the final scene, we know she’s not alone. In It Follows, Jay’s agency over her life, while initially presented as a literal curse, is framed with the solidarity of her peers by the end of the film.

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Regardless of her relationship with Paul and how it moves forward after the movie’s end, we know Jay will face whatever is lurking in the shadows with people she loves backing her up. The “woman as sex object” trope is completely subverted here, as Jay ultimately finds solace in intimacy and trust with her family and friends.

You can stream It Follows on Netflix.


As I said at the start of this post, the genre still has a long way to go when it comes to women–not to mention women of color, who are absent almost entirely as it stands now (in significant roles, anyway). But if we can start with media like this and expand on what it does right, perhaps we can move in a positive direction quicker than we thought possible.

What do you think is breaking ground in the horror genre lately? Let me know in the comments.

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