PEARL trailer screenshot c2b20

The horror genre has, historically, not been very kind to women. Misogynistic tropes seem to thrive in the world of horror–from the hypersexualized teenage girl to the “morally superior” virgin to the good ol’ witch trope, women in horror movies traditionally haven’t had much room to exist as whole, multifaceted, people. In recent years, the genre has developed to be not only more inclusive, but a powerful medium for drawing attention to social injustices. Think the highly acclaimed Jordan Peele film Get Out, which premiered in 2017. Through this film, Peele masterfully used fictional horror to convey the real life horrors of being Black in America. Additionally, according to a 2017 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, horror is the only genre where women are seen and heard as much as or more than their male counterparts.

Horror is starting to become a genre where women don’t just play the victims, but are the heroes and villains of stories, too. In the past decade, especially, horror movies have been a space where women are consistently portrayed as multidimensional beings–not just sexual objects or stepping-stones for male character development. 

ADVERTISEMENT

We were blessed with some truly stellar horror/thriller movies featuring strong female leads this past year. As 2022 comes to a close, take a look back at a few of the standouts. 

WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND 

Prey

Indigenous cultures and people are sorely underrepresented in film and media. Prey, the fifth installment of the Predator franchise, brings a refreshing change of pace by not only featuring Indigenous and First Nations people on screen, but behind the scenes as well (producer Jhane Myers is Comanche and Blackfeet, and many crew members are also Indigneous peoples). Amber Midthunder is mesmerizing in her performance as Naru, a young Comanche woman who is eager to prove herself as a skilled hunter. Set in the Great Plains 300 years ago, the film follows Naru as she hunts the Predator during his first visit to Earth. Midthunder is herself Hunkpapa Lakota, Sahiya Nakoda, and Sisseton Dakota, and spoke with The New York Times about what it was like growing up watching mainstream media where her culture wasn’t represented. She expressed, “Oftentimes in period pieces we’re boiled down to a hyperspiritualized figure or this violent savage caricature…It affects you when you hardly ever see anybody who looks like you or represents you.” 

Prey’s protagonist, Naru, is a fierce hunter, fighter, and survivor–traits we don’t always get to see female characters in film and TV embody. Midthunder’s portrayal of the savvy and deadly Naru is truly a must-see. 

Fresh 

It’s the modern woman’s worst nightmare: the man you are dating is secretly a serial killer. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s pretty much the dilemma that Noa, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, faces in Fresh. Frustrated by dating apps, Noa finally meets a guy that seems worth her time. He’s charming, polite, and actually makes her laugh. But she soon comes to find that he is not who she thought he was when he drugs and kidnaps her to sell her flesh. Her new boyfriend is a meat-dealer who lures, abducts, kills, and dismembers women to then sell their flesh to wealthy men with a grotesque appetite. The film is a thinly-veiled metaphor for the way our culture consumes and commodifies womens’ bodies, and Edgar-Jones shines as the story’s final girl. Fresh is engaging from start to finish, with a deliciously cathartic ending that will make you want to stand up and cheer. 

X and Pearl

Mia Goth has solidified her place as horror royalty after her killer performance in both X and Pearl. Filmmaker Ti West has created an original horror cinematic universe with Goth at the helm. X is set in 1979 and follows a group of young people using an elderly couple’s rural farm to film a pornographic movie. Goth plays two characters in this slasher: she is Maxine, a young woman desperate for fame who thinks this adult film could be her way into Hollywood, and Pearl, the old lady who owns the farm with her husband. Pearl is revealed to be a murderous maniac jealous of the group’s youth and chance at stardom. As she terrorizes and eventually slaughters the entire group, Maxine is the only survivor. X was a smash hit, with Mia Goth’s performance as both the murderer and the final girl earning her high praise. 

Pearl, set in 1918, was released just six months after X and is a prequel to the events of that film. Goth reprises her role as Pearl, though much younger this time, and the audience learns her back story is actually quite similar to Maxine’s. Pearl is a young woman desperate for the spotlight, and she sees fame as her only escape from mundane life on the farm she lives with her parents. We come to learn that the slaughter she committed in X was not her first taste of murder. 

Fans of both movies are eagerly awaiting the third installment, MaXXXine, which will follow the titular character in the events following the 1979 farm massacre. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Halloween Ends

You can’t have a conversation about women in horror without mentioning the legendary scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis. The Halloween franchise that began in 1978 finally came to a close this year with Halloween Ends. Curtis returned as her iconic character, Laurie Strode. The final installment to the franchise gets double points for representation as both Curtis and her character are over the age of 45, which, as we all know, is when women begin to wither away and prepare for death. Just kidding, though, traditional film and media would have you believing it. According to a study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, out of the top grossing 100 films in 2021, only seven featured women actors over the age of 45 as leads. Curtis subverts this trend as the strong, determined, Laurie Strode–who is now a grandmother–and bids a final farewell to Michael Myers. 

Nope

Keke Palmer brings an infectious joy into everything she does, and Nope is no different. Palmer plays Emerald Haywood, and her performance in this film is nothing short of magnetic. Nope is a sci-fi/thriller/horror mashup about OJ and Emerald Haywood, siblings whose father was recently killed by shrapnel mysteriously falling from the sky. The siblings quickly discover that there is some kind of UFO prowling over their ranch, and set out to capture the beast on film. This creates a hunter vs. hunted dynamic between the monster and the siblings that’s unique for this genre. OJ and Emerald could hypothetically just leave their farm and be safe–a choice a lot of horror movie characters aren’t usually given. But they choose instead to defend their farm and their legacy, together. 

Palmer’s character has a charming confidence and salesmanship that is typically only reserved for mediocre white men. She is a profoundly layered character and Palmer brings a sincere depth to the role. Emerald feels like a real person you’d want to be friends with–much like the actress in real life. Palmer deserves all of the flowers for her performance, and even snagged herself the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress (though, I think this “supporting” actress kind of stole the whole show). 

Wendell and Wild

Sharp social-commentary laces this beautifully animated coming-of-age story, Wendell and Wild. Lyric Ross is the voice of the film’s main character, Kat, who is sent to a Catholic boarding school for young girls after the tragic death of both her parents. As Kat is mourning the loss of her mom and dad, she realizes her own powers and that there may be a way to bring them back from the dead. Kat wrestles with demons–both literal and figurative–and a corrupt, capitalistic, villain (who looks familiar but I just can’t quite put my finger on why) trying to take over her hometown while also navigating her grief. Ross voices the character with a masterful touch, conveying the complex emotions that come with death through just her voice. It also cannot go unmentioned the importance of featuring a Black girl who shatters the stereotypes we often see Black women forced into in American media. Kat has a punk rock style, complete with green hair, eyebrow piercings, and platform leather boots. The goth “look” is traditionally associated with pale white skin, dark makeup, and straight, caucasian hair, so seeing a Black girl like Kat embody this aesthetic is a big win for representation. This movie is decidedly the least scary on the list, but the dark themes and entrancing stop motion animation could make even the toughest of viewers squirm. Ross brings a lot of life to a character experiencing so much death, and deserves recognition for her mesmerizing performance. 

Barbarian 

Georgina Campbell leads Barbarian as main character Tess, a genuinely kind young woman who arrives at her Airbnb rental in Detroit, only to find that there is already a man staying there. The man, played by Bill Skarsgård, insists she spend the night at the rental property rather than take her chances finding somewhere else to stay late and on short notice. This invitation triggers a very specific fear that women watching the film know all too well, and immediately puts the audience on edge. The story has too many twists to count, but it does a fantastic job of subtly weaving issues like sexual assault, gentrification, and toxic masculinity in without sacrificing the scary. Campbell’s character makes several questionable decisions throughout the story that can sometimes be frustrating for the audience to watch. She risks her own safety to rescue other characters more than once in the film, but it is ultimately her emotional intelligence, empathy, and strong morality–traits typically associated with femininity and perceived as weakness in our society–that make her a hero. Campbell has solidified her place in the horror genre with her role as the valiant final girl Tess.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the amazing horror movies with women lead characters this year. And, frankly, there is still room for improvement when it comes to representation in horror, and all media for that matter. But, when talking about flipping the script on what women should look like, how they should act, and whose stories are worth experiencing, horror is looking like the genre to lead the way.

Top photo: screenshot from Pearl official trailer

Zoë is a writer and journalist from Minnesota currently based in Chicago. In her free time she likes to watch TV but she usually lies and says her favorite hobby is reading. She is working towards a career that combines her passion for comedy and journalism to create a more informed and equitable world.