It’s Women in Horror month, and when I think of “women in horror,” I think of one of my go-to answers for why I write horror: because I think there’s a lot more room in horror for the kind of female characters I love to watch – three-dimensional ones, complicated ones, damaged ones, Good and Bad and Ugly ones. Therefore, I present a chronological list of some of my favorite women in horror movies – from my junior high idols and beyond. A note: There aren’t a whole lot of traditional final girls on this list. Another note: It is pretty shameful how few non-white women are on this list as well. Dear horror industry, work on this.
Daphne in Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island
She’s the pretty airhead in the cartoons, but Daphne really comes into her own in Zombie Island, where she’s the grown-up host of Coast to Coast with Daphne Blake, in an insecure “It’s Complicated” relationship with Fred, and incredibly brazen and frankly, kick-ass.
Trish in Jeepers Creepers
Trish was the first final girl I felt like I could relate to – she was prickly, mopey, tomboyish, jokey, outspoken, and has her heart broken by a political science student. A great mix of toughness and weakness, with also-great hoop earrings.
Clarice in Silence of the Lambs
The FBI and its criminals are a man’s man’s world – little orphan girls from West Virginia better have a lot of grit to get ahead. I hugely prefer Jodie Foster’s Clarice, but it’s in Hannibal that you learn the great truth about Clarice: that she’s a deep-roller, baby.
Caroline in The Skeleton Key
This is when I started to actually see myself in the day-to-day of grown-up female characters. I loved that Caroline goes clubbing, has tattoos, wears a lot of black – and is trying her best to do the right thing, despite her failings and uncertainties.
Selena in 28 Days Later
The punk-tastic Selena undergoes some of the most important realizations in 28 Days Later: that there’s more to life than just survival, that there will be no more films, that some things are worth waiting longer than a heartbeat for. But she was way smarter and stronger than I thought I could ever hope to be.
Marlena in Cloverfield
Me and Marlena, we are basically the same. Surly, aware of Superman and Garfield. Go to a goodbye party for someone we don’t really know, try to avoid dumb-ass with the camera, end up with a bunch of suicidal douchebags, save said dumb-ass from a giant monster-bug, get attacked by monster-bug, explode in a bloody mess. Just another Saturday night.
Lisa in Silent Hill
I actually never played Silent Hill, but I watched this fan-video focused on Lisa Garland as a good, helpful nurse who doesn’t realize she’s actually a monster – and, upon this realization, transforms into her “true form.” Lisa blurred Good Girl/Bad Girl.
Sarah and Juno in The Descent
Speaking of Good Girl/Bad Girl, Sarah and Juno destroy that dichotomy. Sarah starts out depressed and deadened, grieving her husband and daughter; Juno is a risk-taking force of nature whose motto is “Love Each Day” – the same as Sarah’s dead husband. But Juno’s not a villain, and Sarah’s not sweetness and light. They’re fighters and survivors… with intense emotional lives too.
Tomie in Tomie
Tomie’s a Bad Girl who steals other girls’ boyfriends and refuses to die, a subtler precursor to Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body… but I dare you to try to empathize. She’s a simultaneous victim and manifestation of misogynistic lust, and as such spends her existence being repeatedly killed.
Laurie in Trick ‘r’ Treat
The runt of the litter, the ugly duckling, the late bloomer – Laurie’s clinging to a romantic ideal that even she knows can’t last, since being herself hasn’t gotten her very far, while her beautiful sister’s set her up with a literal man-child.
Helen Lyle in Candyman
I watched Candyman after the trauma of college, and my heart immediately went out to Helen. She’s a sharp student who I suspect married her anthropology professor and is now trying to prove herself by writing a dissertation to “bury” the Ol’ Boys’ assumptions. A little over-eager and a little blind, Helen is the original queen of kicking hornets’ nests.
Katie in Paranormal Activity
I’m still disturbed by my love for Katie, who spends most of the Paranormal Activity series being a possessed demon-vessel, but what I love about her character is her transformation from Normal but Traumatized Girl into an omnipotent villainess. It’s a transformation she suffers because her brother-in-law sees her as expendable – but payback’s a bitch.
Ji-oh in Whispering Corridors 1
Parents, if you want your daughters to emulate any character on this list, let it be Ji-oh. She endures an abusive school system with strength and self-awareness without compromising her kindness for others. She also makes paintings of horrible deaths to get them out of her head, and I know how that goes.
Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks
My actual idol in Twin Peaks was Audrey Horne, but Audrey Horne was in a romantic drama; Laura Palmer was in a horror movie. She was another Good Girl/Bad Girl blur, a fire-walker, a girl you want to pin down as a teen queen, a slut, a victim – but Laura made a choice most of her neighbors wouldn’t have had the strength to commit to. Laura was a bad-ass.
Helen in “New Year’s Day,” ep. of Fear Itself
I’ve written about Briana Evigan’s Helen before: she wakes up hung-over on New Year’s Day with dim memories of the night before – only that she went to the party of the man she loves who she believes loves her back – into a broken, burning city. Suffice it to say that this bundle of raw nerves hit real close to home.
Shelby in “The Spirit Box,” ep. of Fear Itself
If Helen’s my picture of relatable dysfunction, then Anna Kendrick’s Shelby is my picture of relatable competence. Shelby’s dad thinks she’s “like a satanist or something,” but she’s got a heart of gold – she’s just a little bit weird and a little bit witchy, trying to stave off the wreckage caused by her mother’s death.
Sidney and Gale in the Scream series
I didn’t actually watch any of the Scream movies until I watched the final one in theaters, and I was way more impressed than I expected to be – especially with bitchy, stone-cold reporter Gale and sad, reclusive survivalist Sidney. I love that the Scream series makes room for not one but two very different heroines, and that they’ve been enemies as well as friends. Oh, and Dewey’s pretty cool too.
India in Stoker
Yet another young woman dealing with the death of a parent (there’s a theme), India’s wise beyond her years, one of Twin Peaks’ ultra-sensitive “Gifted and the Damned.” She’s also wobbling between sanity and insanity, an impassive glacier punctuated with moments of extreme aggression. Don’t approach this Five Alarm Horror Heroine until you think you can take her.
Mia in Evil Dead 
I love what the Evil Dead remake did with the “little sister” character. Now a recovering heroin addict, Mia spends the movie first controlled and condescended to by her supposed friends, then possessed by a demonic spirit, and finally – finally – able to take back her body and defeat her evil self with a chainsaw. She’s like Katie, but redeemed.
All of Sarah Paulson’s characters in American Horror Story
First, she was a tennis-playing socialite-turned-medium. Next, she was a muckraking journalist put through hell and turned to stone. Finally, she was a meek and can’t-we-all-just-get-along headmistress of a witch academy afraid of her own potential. My love for Evan Peters notwithstanding, Sarah Paulson’s unsteady and conflicted heroines are my favorite part of American Horror Story. Good-hearted and blind Cordelia is my sentimental favorite, but this gif of Lana wins everything.