halloween

12 Great Movies Exploring the Unique Horror of Being a Woman

Photo: Warner Bros, The Weinstein Company and Sundance Selects

This Halloween, we need more than jump scares and gross-outs. You know what’s scarier than monsters, ghouls, and goblins? The patriarchy. Forget the blood geysers, aliens, and flesh-devouring apocalypses — we need thrillers and horror flicks that get at the truly terrifying stuff of female experience, like being married (to a psychopath), getting pregnant (with the devil), going to a doctor (who doesn’t believe you), or walking home alone at night.

So if you’re feeling trolled by the whole world and you want to feel a little less alone, this primal-scream inducing list of Halloween-y whodunits is for you. Each movie captures something special about how the world screws over women and, more often than not, the final culprit or the monster in the closet turns out to be the powers that be, those who refuse to listen and take every opportunity to write you off as crazy. These movies are about the sorts of daily, earthly frights that make us howl at the moon and scream into pillows in real life — and they’re what we deserve to watch (and identify with) this spooktacular season. This Halloween, the call is coming from inside the house, and by “the house” I mean the patriarchy.

Gaslight (1944)
No better place to start than with the source of “gaslighting.” Ingrid Bergman stars as a swooning, glassy-eyed bride whose new husband (Charles Boyer) tries to convince her she’s going mad in order to get her family jewels. Let the cruel, manipulative shenanigans begin; he does things like give her an heirloom brooch, steal it back, then watch in an “all according to plan” kind of way as she hysterically looks for it. The crime here is not about the brooch, of course (not even about the murder he’s also clearly guilty of); it’s about making a woman distrust her own eyes, ears, mind, and memory — and it’s one of the oldest, cruelest tricks in the book. What makes Gaslight such a touchstone is that it’s so straightforward: to make her doubt herself, he quite literally rearranges the world around her, and you know it’s him the whole time. What makes Gaslight a classic is that Bergman is such a revelation to watch.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
The thing about Alfred Hitchcock is there’s always a little part of you that doesn’t really know “if he did it.” Instead, the Master of Suspense leaves you with much scarier, realer questions like, But would he really betray me? and Who can I trust, if not him? So it is with the aptly named Shadow of a Doubt, in which the villainous Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) not only terrorizes his teenage niece and namesake (Teresa Wright), but also has a virulent, murderous disgust toward old ladies. I mean this guy really hates women! But our young female protagonist, like the rest of her family, positively adores her uncle. Perhaps the scariest, most pertinent question of this underappreciated classic is: How could someone I love so much, who means so much to all of us, commit this violence?

The fact that young Charlie keeps her uncle’s secret is also complicated and prescient, as is Uncle Charlie’s malicious inquiry: “You think you’re the clever little girl who knows something, but you don’t know anything … What would you tell? Who would believe you?” (For another fun tale about a rampant misogynist who kills widows while terrorizing children along the way, please see 1955’s Night of the Hunter.)

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
It’s hard to avoid being labeled nuts when you uncover incriminating info that might undermine order. Especially when that info is brimming with salty, salacious details that question hetero dominant norms. That’s what happens in Suddenly, Last Summer when Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) tries to get Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) lobotomized so she’ll finally shut up about Venable’s son Sebastian, his evident homosexuality, and his (problematic) death at the hands of a pack of lustful vacationers down by “the baths.” Many movies feature ladies “turning psychotic” at the moment a powerful institution or malicious individual realizes they have a lot to lose, but in Suddenly, Last Summer, Hepburn, Taylor, and Tennessee Williams’s script carry out this plot device with thrilling fervor and histrionics. Exhibit A: Hepburn’s piercing delivery of, “Doctor! See how she destroys us with her tongue for a hatchet? You’ve got to cut this hideous story out of her brain!”

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Don’t let anyone tell you this psycho horror is a story about a Satanic cult. That’s like saying The Wizard of Oz is about tornado safety and Citizen Kane is about a sled. The real crimes against Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) are much more earthly and terrifying than devil worship. She’s a woman made palpably anxious by her pursuit of upper-class domestic bliss and by her narcissist husband (literally named “Guy” and played by John Cassavetes). And that’s before she’s drugged, wakes up with scratches all over her body, and hears Guy saying, “I didn’t want to miss out.” Her rape results in a pregnancy, during which she becomes increasingly ill, but Guy, her neighbors, and one doctor after another disavow her experience of her own body. The prevailing feeling is that THEY’RE ALL IN ON IT, and it’s an all-too-familiar one.

Perhaps worst of all (worse even than Guy continually dissing her new pixie cut), Rosemary is berated by hubby and docs alike for reading books to learn more about her condition and for talking to her gal pals about her pregnancy (“Pain like that is a warning that something isn’t right,” they say, “you can’t go on suffering like that!”). As in real life, books and friendship prove to be Rosemary’s best weapons in this maddening world, though here they aren’t quite enough to avoid a diabolical, harrowing birth scene. The fact that a movie about such distinctly feminine horrors comes from Roman Polanski is conflicting to say the least, haunting even. That in and of itself is worthy of late-night discussion with your favorite feminists.

The Shining (1980)
If Rosemary’s Baby is all about bodily autonomy, then The Shining is all about marriage. What caused the Overlook Hotel’s previous off-season caretaker to murder his family with an ax? “Well,” the hotel manager explains, “it’s what the old-timers might call ‘cabin fever’ — a kind of claustrophobic reaction which can occur when people are shut in together for prolonged periods of time.” Does anyone else hear wedding bells?

The central horror at the heart of this classic really just boils down to Jack Torrance (the maniacal Jack Nicholson) being a colossal dick to his wife Wendy (the saucer-eyed Shelley Duvall). For signs of the almost commonplace marriage plot here, look no further than the famous staircase scene: Wendy has just found that, for all her husband’s self-serious proclamations about his writing, he is in fact a fraud, “a dull boy.” She backs her way up the stairs, swinging a bat in self-defense as he stalks up the staircase after her. He yells at her about whether or not they should take their son to the doctor, and then pivots to full-throttle self-pity: “Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future if I would fail to live up to my responsibilities?” he screams. He’s a husband turned monster, driven psychotic by his professional shortcomings and the time he drunkenly broke his son’s shoulder, among other failures of masculinity. He’d almost be a cliche of a deadbeat alcoholic husband and father if Nicholson’s performance weren’t so totally unhinged. He mocks her whimpering and, finally nearing the top of the stairs, proclaims in syrupy faux sweetness, “Wendy, darling, light of my life, I’m not going to hurt you … I’m just going to bash your brains in.” Love you too, honey.

In the Cut (2003)
Go ahead and disregard the 34% Rotten Tomatoes score for this suspense thriller, which has a twist or two that I, for one, didn’t see coming. Someone’s going around decapitating women, and Franny (Meg Ryan) gets entangled in the investigation — as well as with the lead detective (Mark Ruffalo). It’s the hostile, sexually oversaturated atmosphere director Jane Campion creates that’s so compelling here. Women are constantly running from something in the background of this movie, and huge flags (the film takes place post-9/11) drape across buildings as quiet memorials and omens of wars to come. Fear is in the air.

In the Cut takes those age-old questions (Can I trust him? Did he do it?) and applies them to the whole world, so that every character, every street corner, every comment, and most definitely anything sex-related becomes a potential threat. Like in the real world, this is confusing, uncomfortable, and exhausting — which is maybe why some viewers don’t like it. There are also some seriously under-interrogated racial dynamics as well as a cheesy moment or two. What In the Cut gets right, though, is this unrelenting hum of sexualized fear. It’s about meeting your sister for coffee the morning after being mugged, and tearing up when she says, “Oh sweetie,” upon seeing your black eye. And you don’t even make a big deal about the mugging, talking instead about how you don’t really trust the guy you just slept with. And then your mentally ill, stalker ex-boyfriend (here, Kevin Bacon) shows up to the coffee shop with his hairless dog and just stares through the glass, waiting for you to leave. And when you do, and you gently tell him again, “You know I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” he says, “Well I’ll have to think about that,” as if it were an open question, as if your words — and fear — don’t matter.

Teeth (2007)
Come for the coming-of-age story, stay for the grotesque, campy castration sequences. In some tellings of the vagina dentata myth, the toothed genitalia and the woman it belongs to might be construed as villainous. Not so here, where the boys and men are squarely to blame — they go too far, don’t hear “no,” and treat women as either conquest or quite literally like dogs (there’s a rottweiler named “Mother” as well as some unmentionable foreplay with a dog biscuit). I can’t imagine it’s a spoiler to tell you the arc of Teeth takes our female protagonist from virginal nymph to somewhat more self-actualized owner of “teeth … down there!” The deeper, more satisfying arc, though, is that she’s a promise-ring clad, abstinence-preaching girl who finally removes the censorship sticker from her textbook’s female anatomy page, holds a mirror up to herself, makes thorough use of a vibrator, and — in her final smirk — seems to imagine the advantages her vaginal peculiarities might offer.

The Babadook (2014)
This movie opens with a child’s voice waking up his mother (“Mom! Mom! Mom!”) and never really stops being about how annoying kids can be — and how hard parenting is. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow and single mom whose 7-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is a chronic under-the-bed-checker who is deeply worried that his mother, like his father, will be taken away. The monster that does eventually come, the Babadook, emerges from a terrifying children’s book and, while Samuel’s petrified nightly, Amelia grows increasingly impatient. Soon though, Amelia too must recognize the horror of the Babadook, which for her results in various failures motherhood: she can’t cook, clean, or sleep enough; she pops pills, makes ice cream for dinner by way of apology, keeps the house dark and the TV on. She says cuttingly mean things just to finally get some peace and quiet.

This is no boring domestic drama though — it’s all extremely scary. Scariest of all, for a while the movie does a brilliant job conflating Samuel’s terrified claims about the Babadook with his extremely normal but deeply annoying demands of his mother (“Look at me! Look at me!”). In this, The Babadook makes its most incisive commentary on the horrific pressures of motherhood: It’s so easy not to listen to your kid and consider the midnight-what’s-in-the-closet fears as foolish instead of versions of our own worst nightmares. But, “the more you deny it, the stronger I get,” says the Babadook.

Under the Skin (2013)
Under the Skin is a weirdo, sci-fi, art-film take on a genre I’d like to call “the streetwalker revenge film,” a subset of the feminist revenge film genre that’s just brimming with movies you should see. While these fantasies of female rage and empowerment are thrilling because you finally get to see ladies kick ass while giving zero fucks, Under the Skin does something a little different and therefore belongs on this list. Scarlett Johansson is an alien who lures innocent-ish men into her van, and then into her black tarpit-like lair. Before she can get to snatching dudes, though, she has to undergo a process of feminization — she inhabits ScarJo’s body, gets a fur coat, puts on lipstick for the first time. She flirts. The ostensible horror of the film is the creepy senselessness with which she disposes her male victims, but her arc of becoming a woman is the much more terrifying and compelling horror, as proven by the film’s final act. By then, she’s doing exceedingly human things like going sightseeing with a man, being cared for, and having feelings, and there’s a sense that maybe her narrative will end — like that of all “good” women — in satisfied domestic bliss. But the devastating brutality of the last scene makes her quite literally come apart at the seams, and she looks as if she’s shocked that such violence had found her in her new traditional female role, as if she thought she were above such earthly humiliations and ruin.

Unsane (2018) + Gothika (2003)
Unsane is the scariest movie of the year and I will stand by that even after you unjustly lock me in a mental institution. Gothika, also about a lady trapped in a psychiatric ward, is a slightly campier, more supernatural member of the genre, but both films are terrifying in their relatability. Nothing is scarier and more crazy-making than having your claims of male aggression and violence invalidated, which is what happens to both Unsane’s Claire Foy and Gothika’s Halle Berry. What’s more, once your testimony is written off as unreliable, every piece of mounting evidence is used to bolster the case for your insanity rather than the case for his crimes. Ghosts, stalkers, and maniacal doctors aside, in Unsane and Gothika, the painfully familiar horror is the cascading betrayals of not being believed, and the mental institution is a beautifully literal manifestation of this problem of trusting women, which allows the violence to continue despite female outcry. That these leading ladies’ only hope for being believed and freed is a mother (Unsane) and a network of female allies (Gothika) also feels rather close to home. Furthermore, the fact that Halle Berry is a rare exception as a woman of color in this genre gives you a good idea of who even gets to be considered a victim and who doesn’t — both in Hollywood and in life.

Safe (1995)
In this slow creep of a thriller, Carol White (Julianne Moore) is an affluent, 1980s housewife in the San Fernando Valley who’s getting sick and doesn’t know why. It starts out like a classic horror movie, with ominous music accompanying Carol and her husband as they wind their way up a hill at night. But the only monster waiting for them at the top is a clinically clean suburban home, a stale marriage, and bad sex. Maybe that’s it then: Carol is just “allergic” to the boredom and beauty standards for rich white ladies of a certain set (“fruit diet” and hyper-spandexed aerobics class be damned!). But Carol’s symptoms exceed this diagnosis too: She’s suddenly allergic to milk; she has a coughing fit from a truck’s exhaust; she collapses from chemicals at the dry cleaner. With condescending and sexist doctors who are no help at all, Carol investigates Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and heads to a healing retreat center in the desert. But the community’s culty vibes don’t quite make this the happy ending we, or Carol, have been looking for.

In fact, we can never quite pinpoint who or what is to blame for Carol’s illness, and that’s the subtle horror here. What if it’s not just the doctor, or your husband, the pressure to meet strict feminine standards, or a world full of toxic chemicals — but all of it together? What if, instead of a bad guy, you’re trapped in an overwhelming, interlocking system? Then what do you do? Then where do you go?

12 Great Movies Exploring the Unique Horror of Being a Woman