While horror has always been viewed as a genre made by and for men, women have been creating and consuming horror from the very beginning and are present throughout the tapestry of horror film history – if you know where to look:
- In 1913 French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché directed an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum.
- Artist and special effects designer Milicent Patrick created the iconic costume for the Gill-man from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), though credit was stolen by a male colleague (who fired her when she protested) until research in 2019 revealed Patrick as the actual creator.
- Debra Hill co-wrote and produced Halloween (1978) though her legacy and career would suggest otherwise when compared with her co-writer John Carpenter.
- Even after the objective success of her film Pet Sematary (1989), the highest grossing horror movie directed by a woman, Mary Lambert’s idea for a sequel following the character of Ellie Creed was turned down by studios in favor of a story written by a man and following a male protagonist – with lackluster critical and commercial results.
- Writers like Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, and Anne Rice contributed iconic works of horror filmmakers are still adapting today.
And yet, when books and documentaries are made and film courses are taught about the history of the genre, women are nowhere to be found. In the exhaustive 867-page overview Horror Film Directors 1931-1990, for instance, the author lists only one woman, in the category he labels “obscure/hack”. As Joanne Russ argued, “A mode of understanding literature which can ignore the private lives of half the human race is not ‘incomplete’; it is distorted through and through.” Traditional means of understanding the history of the horror genre have not even given us an “incomplete” view by which we can extrapolate and hope to understand the real story. It is a history that is so false as to be completely unhelpful. This reimagined history doesn’t only neglect the perspective women. As bell hooks points out, “many feminist film critics continue to structure their discourse as though it speaks about ‘women’ when in actuality it speaks only about white women.” Even as we make gains in making films that represent more stories than just those that appeal to the white North American or European man, we are also becoming aware that simply including white women isn’t enough.
As a woman I can get certain things out of actors that if I were a man, I don’t think I could. Sometimes the male ego balks with another male ego, or a male ego intimidates a female ego or vice versa. It’s not saying one is better than the other, it’s just saying you get something different.Karen Arthur, Inside Karen Arthur’s The Mafu Cage
It is certainly true that there are less female directors than there are male directors for a variety of social and economic reasons. It is also true that women’s contributions are routinely ignored and forgotten, or their authorship is attributed to a male coworker or boss. In order to best understand women’s role in horror, we have to look beyond the role of director as the singular creative genius behind a film and instead view movies as collaborative art created by a team of people talking to each other about what scares us.
It is important to note that simply because a film is directed by a woman does not make it a feminist film. For instance, Barbara Peeters “officially” directed Humanoids from the Deep (1980) but asked for her name to be removed from the project after producer Roger Corman had explicit rape scenes shot and added into the film without her permission. Obviously an exploitation film with egregious rape scenes is not a feminist film. It is also possible for men to direct a feminist film. For instance Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) explores the emotional horror of being held hostage in a toxic relationship and is certainly a feminist interpretation of horror. Similarly, cult favorite feminist horror film Ginger Snaps (2000) was directed by John Fawcett who co-wrote the script with Karen Walton.
Suspiria necessitates a model of multiple and collaborative authorship. Recent scholarship on multiple authorship has sought to foreground not only the collaborative nature of filmmaking but also models for thinking of films as shaped by multiple authors by paying attention to both film texts and production history.Martha Shearer, The Secret Beyond the Door
This article will take a look at horror movies directed or written by women, what they say about the experience of being a woman and whether or not they succeed as feminist pictures. Please note that I have heavily referenced the books Men, Women and Chainsaws by Carol J. Clover and Women Make Horror: Filmmaking, Feminism, Genre edited by Alison Peirse. I will be including more films and more women in filmmaking as I am able to research and update this article.
An exploitation movie directed by Stephanie Rothman about four nursing students who live in a house together. Producer Roger Corman has tried to take credit for its feminism now that the film is considered a cult classic, but luckily Rothman is around to set the record straight. As recorded in the book Women Make Horror, Corman characterizes his work on Student Nurses as “I insisted each [woman] had to work out her problems without relying on her boyfriend”, Rothman corrects this narrative with her own memory: “When [Corman] first saw the rough cut, he told me he didn’t think it was ‘raunchy’ enough… it concerned him that the girls were too intelligent.”
Stephanie Rothman directed this erotic vampire movie about a love triangle between a vampire named Diane LeFanu and a married couple. The surname “LeFanu” is a reference to Carmilla author J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Shot in Mexico, this dreamy and aesthetically pleasing film has become a cult classic. Notably the scenes filmed in Diane’s home create the feeling that the layout of the house is a maze, a technique Stanley Kubrick later became famous for when he used it in The Shining (1980). Rothman retired from filmmaking in 1984 (she was 48), exhausted from the pushback of being a woman in the industry.
I received dire warnings from men who were film executives but not filmmakers, that I would never be allowed to direct, and that even if I were, male crews would never work for me. I have always thought this was a veiled way, or what they mistook for a veiled way, of telling me that they did not want to see me progress.Stephanie Rothman on working as a female filmmaker
While this Italian horror movie is synonymous with director Dario Argento, recent feminist criticism argues that he gets too much credit as he frequently centers himself and describes the creation of Suspiria as a solitary undertaking akin to being a “monk in exile”. The story was actually co-created with writer Daria Nicolodi who was only credited as co-writer after pushing back against Argento. Nicolodi wrote the screenplay based on a story her grandmother told her about being invited to take piano lessons at an academy but leaving after encountering teachers who used black magic (Argento disputes this and his word is taken as the authority). She has said, “I really want to stress that in Suspiria, as well as in Inferno there is a lot of myself, my cultural background and my experience, even though Dario did have an inner predisposition towards the genre. He had reached a point where, after the thriller period, he didn’t know which path to take and I suggested the field of fantasy.”
Carol Kane and Lee Grant star as sisters whose father was a famed anthropologist. They live together in a dilapidated Hollywood Hills mansion where one sister keeps a large cage in the living room for her pet monkeys, which she refers to as “Mafus”. Karen Arthur directed and developed the story with writer Don Chastain based on the French play Toi et Tes Nuages.
This newly rediscovered cult classic was previously forgotten as it had not been championed by the boys club like other films of similar quality from the era. Arthur managed to break into Hollywood in 1971 after spending her tax refund on a filmmaking course at UCLA. Her first film was Legacy (1975) which she followed with The Mafu Cage and then Lady Beware (1987). Her experience trying to make feature films was so poor she quit the industry after Lady Beware and moved to working in television instead.
Director Barbara Peeters asked for her name to be removed as director for this film after famed horror producer Roger Corman shot explicit rape scenes without her permission. He refused to take her name off the project. Corman was unhappy with the more nuanced way Peeters shot the rape scenes and had them reshot by James Sbardellati. The final cut of this sci-fi monster movie fulfilled horror stereotypes of the era with graphic nudity and a storyline centered on mutant creatures raping women of a small village.
Of the film, Barbara Peeters says, “I don’t talk about that film… I’ve always — since a small, little girl — been a feminist.”
In 1975, Amy Jones served as Martin Scorsese’s assistant while he directed the exploitation vigilante film Taxi Driver. Years later, Jones turned down the opportunity to edit Steven Spielberg’s E.T. for this 1982 directorial debut. This film follows a slumber party’s dark demise at the hands of a serial murderer who fetishizes power tools. Although this was still a bloody horror with standard nudity screen time for the 80s, the complexities of female friendship, isolation and trust were weaved throughout a storyline catered to the female experience. Despite having a female director, this film received flack for it’s exploitation of women, which Jones defended by comparing her directorial work to male directors who did not receive the same criticism for their own exploitation style.
Possibly in Michigan is an experimental 12-minute horror video written and directed by artist Cecelia Condit that is both funny and scary. A woman navigates a nonsensical world where she is subjected to much of the same trauma women endure in the real world, mostly at the hands of men. In recent years Possibly in Michigan has been discovered by Zoomers and gone viral on TikTok. The full video can be viewed on Cecelia Condit’s YouTube channel:
One way to avoid retraumatizing is to work through trauma memories under predictable and controlled circumstances. This chapter argues that horror tropes can provide such a contained surrogate, as the genre provides the ritualistic rites to work through vestiges of unresolved trauma. By externalizing internal demons through the vehicle of horror, trauma memories are rendered visible and therefore knowable and destructible.Katia Houde, Personal Trauma Cinema and the Experimental Videos of Cecelia Condit and Ellen Cantor
As the daughter of a rice and cotton farmer, Mary Lambert followed her passion of art when she graduated from Rhode Island School of Design. Her career started by directing wildly popular music videos, such as Madonna’s Like A Virgin, Material Girl and Like A Prayer, to name a few, then soon began working on her feature directorial debut starring Jodie Foster. Pet Sematary was adapted from Stephen King’s 1983 novel on a budget of $11.5 million, grossing $57.5 million at the box office. When a family moves to a small town in rural Maine, their young daughter’s tomcat dies in a horrific accident. The father takes neighborly advice and buries the family pet’s body in a mystical graveyard some claim to have resurrecting powers. Haunting spirits reveal themselves and wreak havoc on the family, resulting in a bloody fight for survival.
A shy goth newcomer in town is outcasted by the local high school, and finds solace in a mysterious antique mirror she finds in her new home. Living with her widowed mother, the teenager unknowingly becomes possessed by the mirror’s demonic powers and her world is tormented by freak incidents. Sister screenwriting duo Annette and Gina Cascone penned this screenplay, which was directed by Marina Sargenti.
The sixth installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street saga finally saw a woman at the helm: Rachel Talalay directed this campy slasher sequel that takes place 10 years after the events of A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989). This film was meant to end the Freddy Kruger saga and Talalay, a Yale graduate with a mathematics degree, was chosen to direct because she had produced four films in the franchise. Still, she was given memos that instructed her not to make the film “too girly”. Notably, Talalay infused much more humor and self-awareness into the film than previous entries into the franchise. It is also the only Nightmare movie that actually mentions sexual abuse — a concept deemed too gruesome for the original when Freddy’s crime against the parents of Springwood, Ohio was changed from molesting children to murdering them.
Jonathan Markovitz acknowledges that horror may challenge presumptions of “female paranoia” by establishing it “as a reasonable response to a world that is hostile to women”.Tosha R. Taylor, Self-Reflexivity and Feminist Camp in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare
Japanese filmmaker Kei Fujiwara directed and starred in this film adapted from a play her theater company produced. She plays the one-eyed sister of a high school teacher who leads a gang of organ thieves. The sickening practices that take place in their underground slaughterhouse are exposed by undercover detectives, one of which has an identical twin. As the storyline evolves, common misogynist horror themes are revealed through virginal victims and maternal sexual abuse.
A horror comedy directed by artist Cindy Sherman about a magazine editor who is forced to work from home because of budget cuts at her job and eventually kills her coworkers and keeps the bodies in her basement office. Rarely mentioned in conversations about Sherman or her body of artistic work because of the “low” status of horror movies as a form of creative expression, Office Killer is about the loss of intimacy as technology replaces many of our face to face interactions — and this was decades before the pandemic.
At the time it was made, American Psycho was a widely discussed adaptation of the controversially violent Bret Easton Ellis novel. It follows a white collar serial killer living and working in Manhattan named Patrick Bateman. He is a clinical and obsessive man both desperate for the admiration of his peers and inclined to murder them. Originally, David Cronenberg was going to direct and Bret Easton Ellis wrote a script that included “a musical number atop the World Trade Center”. Thankfully Mary Harron was hired to direct and co-wrote the screenplay with Guinevere Turner. Production was protested by the National Organization of Women and the Feminist Majority Foundation though Harron’s film removes a lot of the sexualization of women and (if you can believe it) violent scenes from the novel.
I don’t approach movies with an ideology, with a message. I think I approach them with a perspective. I want to tell stories from a female point of view. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to teach a lesson, or that I have a line that I am trying to push, because I’m interested in contradiction, I’m interested in questions that I can’t answer, that are hard to answer.Mary Harron, Murders and Adaptations
This Canadian horror comedy was directed by a man, John Fawcett, who co-wrote the script with Karen Walton. Because of the film’s position as a cult film regularly cited by female horror fans as a favorite, it is included in this list. Ginger Snaps is also a good opportunity to discuss filmmaking as a collective creative process, a fact which is obscured by the common practice of ascribing almost sole authorship of a work to the director. When only the kind of people who have the access and support to become a director are remembered in the film industry, we ensure that the industry will (wrongly) be read as overwhelmingly white and male. By giving more thought to the contributions of below the line creators, we will have a more realistic and diverse view of filmmaking.
The 1950s and 1960s auteurism in France and the United States — according to which a film director is an individual agent who controls the entire creation process of the film — especially erased the contributions of the women who, due to a number of historical, economic, and cultural circumstances have had greater access to the positions of screenwriter, editor, actress, and costume designer than that of director.Katarzyna Paszkiewicz, Gender, Genre, and Authorship in Ginger Snaps
An example of the particularly violent horror movies coming out of France at the turn of the century (called the “new French extremity”), filmmaker Claire Denis wrote and directed this twisted, existentialist slasher laced with sex, murder and cannibalism. When two American honeymooners visit Paris, the husband finds himself reconnecting with an old college flame whose sickening cannibalistic sexual urges lead to deadly consequences for her innocent male victims. Unforgettable scenes of suspense and torture will leave you feeling light-headed and eager to meet the end of this bloodbath film.
Inexplicable self-mutilation forces your eyes to stay open in this disturbing story of a woman with a seemingly perfect life. When a horrific laceration in her leg unveils her own cannibalistic desires, the young woman must fight her urges in order to escape suspicion and worry from her loving boyfriend and disgusted co-workers.
NYU alum Karyn Kusama directed this cult comedy riffing off time old horror tropes, with a studious good-final girl playing opposite of the sensual blood-sucking seductress. When an attempted virginal sacrifice goes wrong, the victimed non-virgin becomes possessed and must feed on flesh to maintain her destructive super strength.
The Soska Sisters were fed up with their stereotypical role offers in the acting business, so they decided to get behind the camera and stir up some trouble for the male dominated industry. In this drama horror, a medical student plagued with debt finds an underground world of misfits in desperate need of her budding surgical expertise. The feminist perspective is executed through a gory storyline based on body dysmorphia and how minor modifications can lead to major irreversable reprucussions.
Daughter of Hollywood actor-director John Cassavetes, Alexandra “Xan” Cassavetes wrote and directed this erotic horror. A screenwriter falls in love with a beautiful woman at a local video store, but it doesn’t take long before her blood-sucking secrets come to light. When the visit of her vampiress sister, a leader in the vampire community, causes bloody chaos, the two lovers are put to a test that unfolds in this modern gothic thriller.
Kimberly Peirce’s debut directing work won Hilary Swank’s Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt starred in her second feature Stop-Loss (2008). By 2013, she was directing this third adaptation of the infamous 1974 Stephen King novel with Julianne Moore on center stage. With the star actress being a minor playing a high schooler for the first time in this adaptation’s history, this film ditched exploitative explicit nudity and instead focused on compelling acting. This modern take on a classic story follows the shy daughter of a paranoid, protective mother whose sheltering causes her daughter to become a bullied misfit at the high school. Cyber bullying meets self mutilation and revenge in this film that reportedly used 1,000 gallons of fake blood.
Prior to her directorial work, Axelle Carolyn spent time in front of the camera as an actor, and behind the keyboard as a journalist. Two years after the release of her first two short films, she came back for blood with this chilling feature. After the devastating death of her husband, a widow’s disturbing struggles with psychosis lead her to a horrific act. The terrifying film opens on an extremely graphic failed suicide attempt and evolves into a haunting supernatural tale with sinister spirits.
Inspired by the 1837 fairytale The Little Mermaid, this salacious genre bending horror follows two performing mermaid sisters in a 1980’s Polish beach town. While one sister longs for love from a local boy, the other’s fantasies of a vicious attack on the town slowly build into a disturbing reality.
French film writer-director Julia Ducournau studied screenwriting in Paris before she released her own award winning short film Junior at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Five years later, she sent audiences on a thrilling ride with her feature directorial debut Raw. A veterinary student endures first semester hazing rituals that challenge her vegetarianism lifestyle, and take a gruesome turn when she gets a taste on what she’s been missing out on her whole life.
Anna Biller’s directorial work has gained a cult following due to her artistically elaborate aesthetic and campy appeal. In her self-written and directed feature The Love Witch, audiences are taken on a 35mm journey alongside a young witch whose well-intentioned love spells lead her potential lovers to death. Watch the trailer and you will certainly become entranced by the smooth, saturated cinematic approach to another world.
When a wealthy married CEO and his mistress squeeze in a romantic getaway before an all-boys hunting trip with his friends, company creeps in early on their isolated villa. It doesn’t take long before the creepy power-hungry men set their twisted eyes on the young woman, and a series of traumatic events leaves her for dead. Writer-director Coralie Fargeat paints a visually stimulating world that exposes audiences to the unimaginable and keeps you rooting for bloody retaliation.
More feminist movies directed by women
- Silent House (2011), Director: Laura Lau. This US remake of a 2010 Uruguayan film tells the story of a terrorized family in the isolated countryside, through a “real-time” one-take shooting approach.
- Among Friends (2012), Director: Danielle Harris. Writer and star Alyssa Lobit crafted this comedy horror about a fun murder mystery gathering that reveals more serious motives for an evil partygoer.
- The Strange Color Of Your Body’s Tears (2013), Director: Hélène Cattet. French filmmaking couple Cattet & Forzani present this visually pleasing surreal cinematic experience following a man’s chilling quest to find his missing wife.
- The Babadook (2014), Director: Jennifer Kent. Kent adapted her own short film into this creepy story of a single mother whose home becomes haunted by the destructive monster in a children’s book, insighting hallucinations and mania within her and her young child.
- A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), Director: Ana Lily Amirpour. This Persian horror film incorporates drug addiction, a seductive vampire and spaghetti western stylization into one unconventional and compelling cinematic masterpiece.
- Prevenge (2016), Director: Alice Lowe. What’s better than British humor? A British comedy slasher film shot in under two weeks, while starring a visibly pregnant actress playing a widow whose possessed foetus leads her on a killing spree.
- Always Shine (2016), Director: Sophia Takal. Complexities of female friendships stand front and center on this journey with two actress best friends who reconnect on a trip that leads to a suspenseful breaking point.
- Berlin Syndrome (2017), Director: Cate Shortland. Stream Netflix’s novel adaptation that follows an Australian backpacker whose one night stand locks her in his Berlin apartment, leaving her desperate for a way out.
- Blue My Mind (2017), Director: Lisa Brühlmann. Inspired by the teenage experience, this Hungarian coming of age film offers a terrifyingly realistic idea of how a powerful mermaid’s puberty experience would affect those around her.