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09.17.09

Revenge of the Scream Queens

Horror heroines have come a long way since King Kong’s helpless Fay Wray. Today, Megan Fox eats men in Jennifer’s Body—and it’s up to her best girlfriend to stop her. Shannon Donnelly on a cinematic evolution. Plus, a gallery of scream queens.

Why is the horror-film battlefield so often littered with more female casualties than male? Karyn Kusama, the director of Jennifer’s Body—the new movie from Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody and starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried—has a theory: “We really identity with this idea of female vulnerability, that somehow women are innately more vulnerable, so we feel for them, and we feel more for them when they die,” she explains. And yet, a woman is also usually the last one standing when the credits roll. Kusama has an answer for that, too. “That vulnerability is part of what makes it so thrilling to watch a woman figure out how to survive against the monster.”

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In other words, scream queens have come a long way, baby. Back in the 1930s, when Fay Wray was getting King Kong all hot and bothered, a woman just had to look pretty and shriek a lot until the hero of the film got around to saving her. Seventy years later, we have movies like Jennifer’s Body, in which a rock band’s fame-seeking Satanic sacrifice turns Jennifer (Megan Fox) into a literal maneater. And it’s up to her shy best friend—the unironically named Needy (Amanda Seyfried)—to save the guy from her former-BFF’s clutches. “Though Jennifer is the monster of the film, which in itself is sort of interesting and unusual, she’s also not entirely the villain,” Kusama says. “The overambitious pop rock band are truly the villains, so it’s interesting for me to think about how Jennifer’s victimization transforms her into something monstrous.”

Unlike in a straight drama, when a woman is victimized in horror, it’s a rallying cry for blood to spill. In 2007’s Teeth, a young woman (Jess Weixler) discovers her vagina dentata after her boyfriend attempts to rape her. In 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon flipped the horror-movie cliché of the blond girl getting carved up in an alley by giving the would-be victim super powers. And of course, in 1976’s Carrie Sissy Spacek’s character laid waste to the high-school bullies who’d made her life hell.

When a woman isn’t wreaking vengeance in a horror movie, of course, chances are she’s running through the woods—and falling down a lot—while fleeing her attacker. And while the majority of the women will eventually fall prey to the killer’s chainsaw, machete, or, heaven help her, charm, most modern horror movies end with at least one woman left standing at the end—what academics have termed the “final girl.” From Halloween’s Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) to Naomi Watts’ character in The Ring, there’s usually at least one woman who’s gone to hell and back—literal or figurative—to defeat the baddie. Halloween set the slasher standard, and then Friday the 13th took it from there: at its end, Adrienne King’s Alice lopped off the killer’s head, an act that almost balances the movie’s gender scales after its outmoded depiction of teenage girls (and boys) getting carved up as punishment for sexing, drinking, and other fun activities. But that’s changing, too. As Kusama points out, that trope is being left by the wayside for women and men in horror movies. “Sex and sexual activity is not quite so much a guarantee of dismemberment and death,” she says.

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What’s really interesting, though, is the way that horror movies stack up compared to other kinds of films in terms of gender equality. Simply put, much like their heroines, they kick some major ass. While there are movies like 2008’s Sex and the City and The Women, which feature female-heavy casts, it’s much rarer to find a mainstream movie that features several women talking about anything other than the men they’re romantically pursuing. But jump to the horror side of things and the prospects get a little brighter. Movies like The Craft and The Descent showcase women worrying about something other than a guy…unless said guy is the one trying to kill them.

“The horror genre is the wickedly smart, very, very shrewd stepsister of the romantic comedy,” a genre that Kusama personally can’t see herself ever delving into. “I don’t have the innate politics to execute those kinds of stories, where it’s the focus on a man that drives the narrative, and I think what’s really interesting about horror for me is that it accurately reflects a deeper belief about the world, which is that there is actually something very real and primal and relatable about a woman literally running for her life. I do think there’s something very politically empowering about the idea that women are the central characters of these movies, having to hold their own against the villains, monsters, and darkness.”

Who would have guessed the genre that made its mark by showcasing lots of jiggling co-ed flesh ripe for the carving would be the one getting more women in the cinematic spotlight? Especially one like Jennifer’s Body, which showcases strong women on both sides of the camera. “Just having a movie out there that’s written by a woman, directed by a woman, and stars two females,” Kusama says, “as insane as this movie is, that makes me feel like that’s part of the accomplishment.”

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Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York, and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.