Morbidly Beautiful

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Female Villains

Everyone loves to root for the heroic and virginal final girl, but how did the sexy, villainous women of horror become my heroes?

Okay, first thing first, I wasn’t born into a pink blanket at a hospital; it was blue. Thus began a long process of confusion and realization. But that is a story for another day.

Being a confused child, I looked to women as my role models, not men. A child of the seventies, watching “Happy Days” and “The Love Boat” would not set my head “right”, no matter what Fonzie did and Captain Stubing said. Therefore, I sat down and changed the channel to something more my taste. At least “Fantasy Island” gave me hope, magic, and dreams.

In my bloodlust, I viewed classic nineteen fifties and sixties horror films, like the Hammer films, in reruns on my local Channel Nine in Chicago. It was depressing to discover these women characters were little more than picture cutouts — lovely dressed dolls with movable parts.

If they weren’t being coddled by their spouses or fiancee or father, it was some monster, vampire or werewolf giving chase.

Being bound by strict Victorian codes, while still showing ample bustline, the dignified cultured woman had no ability to fight the beasts. They didn’t even have the ability to walk fast from an impending attack. Fainting was their sole defense of the encounter, as was striking an aghast pose, with arms and hands covering their faces, accompanied by bellowing screams. This would be the time our male hero would come in to rescue our poor weak and defenseless lady.

Many of the films’ plots were mindless dribble, and they displayed the women for male viewers’ delight. Even vampire twins.

Except for a certain mummy. As someone with a gender confusion, I admired the women — not their physical attributes, but their clothing and appearance — — and I ignored the film.

Yes, it doesn’t say much for my tastes (or the directors/producers of such films). If my family had only known I didn’t gawk at the women for their looks, but rather dreamed of wearing their costumes and ornate looks.

However, my visitation into the horror world was soon over after the two-hour window, and then I’d get ready for my Little League practice. Yes, it was a funny business back in my youth.

There were a few films containing women who showed strength, albeit evil — such as the female vampire/ witch Asa in Black Sunday, Bava’s cult classic — that caught my eye.

Among them were Marsha Quist, the female werewolf in The Howling, whose leather and libido made me admire her independence; Miriam Blaylock, the ancient head vampire in The Hunger, Ripley in the Alien films. These women have always displayed a sense of independence, something those other horror films lacked.

Even Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby never chose her lot in life. She stepped up and accepted being the antichrist’s mother, but that was not a choice.

In time I analyzed myself and my likes. I seemed to be the only person who rooted for the evil women characters, like Nancy in The Craft, and I realized these women were the outlaws and outsiders.

Their path was wicked, and they eventually met their demise at the end, but I always wished they would win. Even the overly friendly Annie Wilkes in Misery captured my inner glee with her grit and willpower. Being a reptilian-like being seemed so natural and enabling. I was only surprised these women always met with failure.

I wondered if I was not only a woman in a past life, but a wicked one at that. Maybe watching these enlightened women was my vicarious way of reconnecting with my past sins.

As the stream of female heroes became the new cause, films like You’re Next and It Follows gave us empowered female leads who survived on their wits and strength, and their ability to keep their cool while everyone else lost their heads. 

My heart rejoiced, but I missed something in those movies. I wanted the strong and intelligent female lead to be the villain. Didn’t the filmmakers realize how much fun evil characters are? As much as I loved the meaty and respectable roles for women, I didn’t want Hollywood to give up on writing captivating female baddies.

I used to imagine horror movie scenarios for old Hollywood femme fatale actresses. Imagine if Marilyn Monroe had played a vampire or a ghost? What if Rita Hayworth was a witch? I can’t help but feel that past directors missed out on such great horror potential with these unforgettable leading ladies.

In time I asked deeper questions. Did I feel the need to root for these dark characters as a result of my own selfish dreams?

I’d rather be Morticia Addams than Sydney, Nancy or Laurie. Movies are dreams and fantasy. But I’ve always known they speak unspoken words, and great information can be gleaned from your viewing habits.

Power, control, and revenge all looked damn good. Not only did these villainous women look great, but they didn’t give a care what others expected of or wanted from them. They gleefully rebelled, and that devil-may-care attitude was so freeing and attractive to me. I liked that they didn’t take any bologna from anyone. They were everything I wished to be, and everyone I thought I should strive to be — perhaps a distorted sense of reality, but one I could comprehend.

Yes, I wanted to be them — only sans the blood draining, killing, and soul possessing.

Now, as more time has passed, I appreciate the shift in making more heroes out of women in horror. But I still cherish my sinister women. I watch the evil female, and I enjoy watching the heroes do their bidding, even if only for a short period.

The genre has been male-dominated, but the future leads are more female now. Beliefs and standards are changing, and the males are the heavies, the representation of evil. I miss the older films where the female villains did their bidding with more flair and class. I only hope there are more Rose Armitage-like characters in the future.

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