Director Babak Anvari’s recent Under the Shadows – is an eerie, superstitious tale of a mother and daughter’s spiritual struggle to cope with the terrors of post-revolution Iran. After the protagonist Shideh’s building is hit by a missile during the Iran-Iraq War, a fear mongering neighbour suggests that the missile was cursed and might be carrying malevolent Middle-Eastern spirits. She becomes convinced a supernatural force within the building is attempting to possess her daughter Dorsa, and she has no choice but to confront these forces alone, if she is to save her daughter and herself. Subsequently making her the ultimate contemporary poster girl for feminism in horror.
In response to the recent critically acclaimed film, we decided it would be fitting to chart horror’s iconic women… while taking a look at the ways witchcraft has been used in film to chastise — or praise — subversive women.
Female occultism, in particular the concept of ‘witches’ appears to be having a bit of a resurgence in pop culture at the moment. From “American Horror Story” to “Witches Of East End” to Jenji Kohan’s series about the Salem Witch Trials, the magical woman is undergoing a renaissance cultural moment — and also gaining new respect as an enduring feminist symbol.
“Young women in particular are looking for an archetype outside the tired virgin/whore binary that we’re offered, and the witch can do just that,” Kristen Korvette, who created a new course at The New School called The Legacy of the Witch.
Occoultist women portrayed in films are inherently connected to the irrational fear of females and their biological bonds to the natural world. They can also be explicit critiques of the modern world — and a much needed form of assertion. Bearing this in mind, get ready to enrich your scary movie diet with some progressive feminism.
𝟏. 𝐓𝐡𝐨𝐦𝐚𝐬𝐢𝐧, 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐖𝐢𝐭𝐜𝐡 (𝟐𝟎𝟏𝟓)
This already cult status film takes us back to New England in the 1630s, a few decades before the Salem witch trials, unfolding the story of a teenage girl trapped somewhere between the ambiguity of religious fervor, the eventual relinquishment of religious shame, and eventual sexual abandonment… and above all else the certainty of true evil.
𝟐. (𝐂𝐚𝐫𝐫𝐢𝐞,) 𝐂𝐚𝐫𝐫𝐢𝐞 (𝐎𝐫𝐢𝐠𝐢𝐧𝐚𝐥 – 𝟏𝟗𝟕𝟔)
‘’Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, but also what men fear about women and women’s sexuality. Writing the book in 1973 and only three years out of college, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. Carrie is woman feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.’’
Stephen King’s Carrie focuses mainly on the male fear of powerful women that inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp signifying her death as the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s states that the inspiration for his 1973 book, is as much a realisation of a feminist nightmare as it is a patriarchal one, with neither party winning.
The rise of Second Wave feminism in the seventies posed serious threats to the patriarchal order certainly, but even for those who think change is not only necessary but good, change can be pretty scary. This, also disconcertingly taps into the shared universal fear of being victimised, something most of us can relate to at one point in our lives, and is one of the reasons Carrie still scares everyone.
𝟑. 𝐍𝐚𝐧𝐜𝐲, 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐂𝐫𝐚𝐟𝐭 (𝟏𝟗𝟗𝟔)
The Craft is a teenage tale of witchcraft in the American high school. Sarah (Robin Tunney) is a troubled girl who just moved to Los Angeles. She meets three school outcasts rumored to dabble in witchcraft – Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Nancy (Fairuza Balk) and Rochelle (Rachel True). Sarah joins their coven and, as a result, four teenagers gain access to dark powers, and after Nancy is struck by lightening in the initiation, she lacks empathy and becomes power obsessed.
At first, they use them in a most teenage way possible, from unleashing revenge to attracting school hunk Chris (Skeet Ulrich). But things take a darker turn as people start dying, spells backfire and the coven’s leader, Nancy, becomes more and more of an unhinged bad girl as the film progresses.
𝟒. 𝐉𝐚𝐲, 𝐈𝐭 𝐅𝐨𝐥𝐥𝐨𝐰𝐬 (𝟐𝟎𝟏𝟒)
Forgetting the whole “teenagers who have sex die” exhausted tradition of the horror film for a second. In this film, the characters have to have sex in order to survive a deadly curse. Annie is a new kind of final girl, who has to break the rules of the genre and the adult world to stay alive.
This is a refreshingly powerful depiction of adolescence, which culminates in an uplifting (literally) scene of personal fulfillment and ecstasy.
𝟓. (𝐑𝐨𝐬𝐞𝐦𝐚𝐫𝐲,) 𝐑𝐨𝐬𝐞𝐦𝐚𝐫𝐲’𝐬 𝐁𝐚𝐛𝐲 (𝟏𝟗𝟔𝟖)
This is one of those cases in which you want to separate the director from his work—I would never call Roman Polanski a feminist, but I would argue that this film is. Rosemary’s Baby is a surprisingly honest and intimate portrayal of the expectations, disappointments, and even horrors that can accompany pregnancy. And the lullaby that begins and ends the film will haunt you for a long time (it’s my ringtone).
𝟔. ‘𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐆𝐢𝐫𝐥,’ 𝐀 𝐆𝐢𝐫𝐥 𝐖𝐚𝐥𝐤𝐬 𝐇𝐨𝐦𝐞 𝐀𝐥𝐨𝐧𝐞 𝐚𝐭 𝐍𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭 (𝟐𝟎𝟏𝟒)
A mysterious female vampire stalks an Iranian town and, in the process, exposes its secrets. This dreamy, beautifully filmed Persian-American flick draws from both the horror and Spaghetti Western traditions, and immediately became an inspiration for independent horror filmmakers.
𝟕. 𝐂𝐨𝐮𝐧𝐭𝐞𝐬𝐬 𝐌𝐚𝐫𝐲𝐚 𝐙𝐚𝐥𝐞𝐬𝐤𝐚, 𝐃𝐫𝐚𝐜𝐮𝐥𝐚’𝐬 𝐃𝐚𝐮𝐠𝐡𝐭𝐞𝐫 (𝟏𝟗𝟑𝟔)
Dracula’s Daughter is an all too often overlooked Universal Studios monster gem. Gloria Holden stars as Countess Marya Zaleska, a hypnotic vampire who is forced to bear her father’s legacy. She also demonstrates a strong attraction to women, thereby initiating the cinematic trend of the lesbian vampire.
𝟖. 𝐀𝐬𝐚 𝐕𝐚𝐣𝐝𝐚, 𝐁𝐥𝐚𝐜𝐤 𝐒𝐮𝐧𝐝𝐚𝐲 (𝟏𝟗𝟔𝟎)
Black Sunday, also known as The Mask of Satan and Revenge of the Vampire — is a 1960 Italian gothic horror film directed by Mario Bava, Burned at the stake, a vampire witch princess (Barbara Steele) wakes up centuries later with her undead henchman.
To this Bava now added a direct approach to historical misogyny and warped religious concepts of femininity and virtue, subjects rarely tackled before except by Carl Dreyer, one of intelligent horror’s strongest influences, in films like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927) and Day of Wrath (1943).
𝟗. 𝐀𝐦𝐞𝐥𝐢𝐚, 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐁𝐚𝐛𝐚𝐝𝐨𝐨𝐤, 𝟐𝟎𝟏𝟒
Six years after the violent death of her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) is at a loss.The Babadook (2014) punctures this myth of the new feminized laborer — a perky, independent professional, free from housewifery and inequality. Instead, we are faced with Amelia, a clearly intelligent, capable woman, who lives in a careworn haze of fatigue and depletion, only emerging periodically to rally herself to tenderness or descend into demonic fury. An amazing depiction of the burdens of being a single mother, and a terrifying watch.
𝟏𝟎. 𝐖𝐢𝐥𝐥𝐨𝐰, 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐖𝐢𝐜𝐤𝐞𝐫 𝐌𝐚𝐧 (𝟏𝟗𝟕𝟑)
When fervently Christian detective Sergeant Howie visits a remote island in the Hebrides to investigate a young girl’s disappearance, he finds a community celebrating May Day with pagan rituals. Whilst visiting, he stays at the local inn where he meets Willow, the innkeeper’s daughter, who attempts to sway him from his Christian path. Willow’s responsibility for demonstrating the loose morals of the Summerisle heathens (and testing Howie’s purity) is exhibited with a bizarre bawdiness – but Britt Ekland’s Bond-girl, pouting sexuality marked her (and her role as Willow) as an iconic figure of seduction within horror.
𝟏𝟏. 𝐄𝐥𝐚𝐢𝐧𝐞, 𝐋𝐨𝐯𝐞 𝐖𝐢𝐭𝐜𝐡 (𝟐𝟎𝟏𝟔)
Witches have been portrayed onscreen as evil, hideous hags (Hocus Pocus), as eccentric but kind neighbors (Practical Magic), as rebellious teens in Hot Topic clothing (The Craft). In The Love Witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) – despite being a homage to all this vintage vixens, is a different archetype from the ones we’re used to seeing—she’s a seductive woman whose primary goal in life is to find a man who adores her, which she attempts using methods of seduction and spellwork.
𝟏𝟐. 𝐆𝐰𝐞𝐧, 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐖𝐢𝐭𝐜𝐡𝐞𝐬 (𝟏𝟗𝟔𝟔)
Following a deeply disturbing experience with the occult in Africa, a schoolteacher moves to a small English village, only to discover that black magic resides there as well.
This film was a pet project of Joan Fontaine, based on a novel by Peter Curtis. It was her last feature film. Fontaine stars as the fearlessly strong teacher Gwen Mayfield, who is in charge of a missionary school in Africa. A witch doctor puts a curse on her, causing a nervous breakdown.
Returning to England, she takes a job running a small rural school. In the village, there is an active voodoo cult. They have targeted a young woman named Linda (Ingrid Brett), whom they plan to offer as a virgin sacrifice. The cult members are led by journalist Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), whom Mayfield discovers is the head witch. So much female sass for one movie, decades ahead!
𝟏𝟑. 𝐒𝐮𝐳𝐲, 𝐒𝐮𝐬𝐩𝐢𝐫𝐢𝐚 (𝟏𝟗𝟕𝟕)
Dario Argento’s avant-garde and beautifully shot giallo movie follows the journey of an American dancer, as she enrols in a prestigious German dance school, only to find it’s run by masochistic witches. Argento’s technical stylings are always a wonder to behold and Suspiria, with its use of mind blowing colours, and a spectacular score by prog-rock band Goblin. Not to mention a bizarre mystery at the heart of it all, is one of his, and Italian cinema’s, most thrilling works. It is definitely a film critic’s film, and remains as influential as it does unnerving.