Halloween is right around the corner, so of course it’s open season for horror movies. Ghosts, ghouls, and goblins. But what about those who stand up against the nightmares? And what about the women who stand up to the things that go bump in the night?
Here’s Nerdy But Flirty’s top five horror heroines. Narrowing it down to five was a tough. With such great characters, like Sidney Prescott from Scream, Sally Hardesty from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween’s Laurie Strode, there are many examples of incredible women in horror. But these five are, arguably, the strongest in the horror genre.
5. Camille Keaton as Jennifer Hills in I Spit On Your Grave (1978)
Trigger warning: this section discusses scenes of graphic sexual violence.
Originally titled Day of the Woman, I Spit On Your Grave begins with short story author, Jennifer Hills, going out to the country to write her first novel. Being a New Yorker in a small town, she naturally attracts the attention of some of the local men.
What happens next is the incredibly graphic gang rape of Jennifer by four of these locals. It’s by no means empowering, especially since Jennifer doesn’t put up too huge of a fight. Despite its seemingly misogynistic subject matter, it should be noted that the writer/director, Meir Zarchi, was inspired to make this film after helping a naked and bloodied woman coming out of the woods after being raped.
Sexual violence is a tragic truth that exists in our world, and nothing about the rape scenes in I Spit On Your Grave glorify what is happening to Jennifer. It’s honestly some of the most repulsive and repugnant imagery ever committed to film, but seeing her naked, bloodied, and covered with dirt on the ground is treated as the disgusting and unforgivable act it really is, without trying to gloss over the brutal reality of the act.
Naturally, after being so brutally violated, the next course of action is for Jennifer to exact her revenge. She begins systematically hunting down her assailants to make them all pay for what they did to her.
It may seem strange to include a movie about a woman being viciously raped in an article about powerful women in horror – especially a movie which acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert referred to as the worst movie ever made – but Jennifer elevates herself above the role of victim. She may lower herself to the level of her assailants, but you never wince at their plight. Every man she kills deserves it, and after watching Jennifer so broken, bloodied and despondent, you want to see her get her revenge, and Jennifer obliges with making it just as brutal, bloody, and disgusting as what her attackers did to her.
4. Kristen Connolly as Dana in The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
The Cabin in the Woods, at its surface, has a pretty straightforward setup. Five coeds go out to party at an eponymous cabin in the woods, recently purchased by the cousin of one of the leads. What ensues in Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s horror meta-movie is much less than straightforward.
Protagonist Dana, still upset from a recent breakup with a professor at her school, blows off her friend Jules’ suggestions that she could hook up with her friend Holden. Jules, meanwhile, plans to be distracted by boyfriend Curt, while Marty just wants to smoke his weight in pot.
Once they arrive at the cabin, they awaken an evil that’s hellbent on killing each and every last one of them. However, there’s even more than meets the eye to the horrors they face.
Dana is one of the more fleshed out, and rounded, heroines to bless the horror genre in years. She has sexuality and it’s treated with respect, which is exceedingly rare – especially in the horror genre. She’s intelligent, capable, independent, strong, and uses all of her assets to survive.
Of course, once you survive the movie…then what? What if there were one more trial after the movie, but before the credits? Dana makes the cut for not only surviving the terrors held in a cabin in the woods, but for tackling the real horror that lies beyond it.
3. Sharni Vinson as Erin in You’re Next (2011)
You’re sitting down to a family dinner one night in your family’s beautiful vacation house in the woods, when all of a sudden, a bunch of maniacs in animal masks start shooting crossbows through the windows. What do you do?
You’re Next follows a lot of the standard horror setups and pitfalls. A bunch of young people out in a “cabin” in the woods are being systematically slaughtered by a group of sadistic killers, armed with medieval weaponry. Expect some plot twists. However, at its heart, You’re Next is really about inverting the “Final Girl” horror trope.
Erin kicks into high gear and refuses to become a victim. While most final girls will just kick, scream, and run away, Erin eschews “fight or flight” and jumps straight to “kill or be killed.” She’s not portrayed as a heartless monster, and any violence she inflicts is done to survive, but it still takes a toll on her.
Still, her safety and that of her family rests on her shoulders, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get them to dawn. Whether that means setting traps in the house, using subterfuge to gain a tactical advantage, or just a good old- fashioned bludgeoning, Erin is so good at surviving that you almost start feeling bad for the people trying to kill her. Almost.
2. Shauna Macdonald as Sarah in The Descent (2005)
A year after a car crash killed her husband and daughter, Sarah reunites with her friends Juno, Beth, Samantha, and Rebecca, as well as Juno’s friend, Holly, at a cabin to go spelunking as a tribute to the friends’ good ol’ days.
Unfortunately, once they go caving, there’s a cave-in that prevents them leaving through the entrance through which they came. Having organized the trip, Juno then has to explain to the group that not only are they not in the easily navigable cave they’re supposed to be in, but the cavern system is completely unmapped and undiscovered. Additionally, since she wanted to have them claim the system, Juno also failed to properly report to anyone else where they’d really be.
Oh, and the cave is also filled with very carnivorous, hungry monsters.
Needless to say, the adventure quickly denigrates into a nightmare. Though Sarah begins, still crestfallen over the loss of her family, being thrown into the bowels of hell awakens the survivor within. A particularly brutal confrontation in the nest of the cave’s monstrous inhabitants (including a now-iconic scene referenced in 2013’s Tomb Raider video game reboot) shows that Sarah will do whatever it takes to survive – especially if that means a vicious transformation from prey to predator that, once complete, makes Sarah the most dangerous and terrifying thing in the cave.
1. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979)
It almost feels lazy to list Ripley as number one on this list. Ripley constantly tops lists of best sci-fi/horror characters, but it’s for a good reason. The movie’s tagline – “In space, no one can hear you scream,” sums up what Ripley and the crew must endure when an extraterrestrial killing machine is loose on their ship.
After a distress signal leads to a derelict spacecraft on a planet, three members of the crew investigate the ship, finding a large alien creature with its chest exploded from inside, and then a sizable chamber filled with eggs. While crew member, Kane, is investigating one of the eggs, it hatches, and an alien attaches itself to his face through his helmet. The other two help him back to the ship, and violate quarantine procedures to bring him back on board.
All attempts to remove the creature fail, and in the process, they discover that it bleeds concentrated acid. Eventually, it comes off of Kane’s face, dying in the process. Kane seems fine, until over a meal, a creature puts the mess in mess hall, and bloodily bursts forth from Kane’s chest in one of the most well-known moments in horror history.
The next time we see the creature after its bloody escape, it’s an eight-foot-tall killing machine. Armed only with electric prods, flamethrowers, and motion sensors, the crew is at a disadvantage against the alien mercilessly stalking them from the air ducts.
Facing an unknown and vicious enemy, exposing conspiracies and betrayal in the crew, and even eventually assuming command of the ship are all part of Ripley’s tale of survival. She’s an incredibly smart, brave, and capable woman who survives one of horror’s most terrifying monsters.
Ripley certainly exhibits a lot of the traits that many great horror heroines have, but it’s her attitude and the way she carries herself, thanks to an exemplary performance by Sigourney Weaver, that truly elevates her. There’s a confidence and strength that resonates through the screen that speaks just as loudly as her actions.
While many of Ripley’s more memorable lines and moments are admittedly from the sequel Aliens, Alien’s Ripley tops the list for not only being the strongest woman in horror, but for being one of the strongest women in cinema.
[Special thanks to my roommate Jason Stafford, who knows way more about horror movies than I ever will.]