31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: THE EXORCIST


Considered by many to be the scariest film ever made and the first horror film nominated for Best Picture, The Exorcist has remained at the top of the horror heap for over forty years for good reason — what’s more terrifying than seeing a little girl on the edge of womanhood being possessed by the devil and driven to commit all manner of unholy atrocities? The film is still every bit as shocking and progressive as it was upon release, if not moreso, especially considering that The Exorcist made over $400 million, which means the majority of Americans witnessed the possession of Regan MacNeil in all its visceral detail. The point I raised in my introductory essay for this project is especially applicable with this film — how many general audiences would go see a movie about a single mother and her teenage daughter with intense discussions of female bodily autonomy, free will, and Catholicism if that film were not also a horror film?


You know the details: 12-year old Regan MacNeil becomes possessed by the demon Pazuzu after playing with a Ouija board, and it’s up to her single actress mom, Chris, (the always luminous Ellen Burstyn), some conflicted priests, Fathers Merrin and Karras (Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller), and a curious cop (Lee J. Cobb) to save her. Regan and Chris’s single mother/daughter dynamic was still a relatively new narrative base in the 1970s, and even when Regan starts acting out due to the possession, Chris is willing to do whatever it takes to save her daughter, relying first on science, then on more spiritual options. Some of the scariest scenes in the film are early on, when Regan is subjected to a variety of grueling medical tests (including a particularly brutal spinal tap) that yield no answers, frustrating Chris infinitely since she cannot help her daughter even with the assistance of medicine, and beginning the slow process of Regan’s loss of bodily control. There have been plenty of films about demonic possession since The Exorcist, but the intimacy of Regan and Chris’s relationship in the film’s first act coupled with extremity of the imagery in the film that happens later in the film feels more shocking in the wake of exsanguinated possession films that have been released since. 

The Exorcist is based on the real-life case of Roland Doe, but in adapting the film for the screen, Oscar-winning screenwriter William Peter Blatty made the change of Roland to become Regan, a teenage girl. I don’t fully adhere to Peter Biskind’s theory that the film is all about male fears about menstruation, but I do think it was a very conscious choice on Blatty’s behalf to portray a teenage girl as so monstrous, considering many roles for teenage girls in “adult” films are of the Lolita variety. But, Blatty’s decisions in just how far to go with Reagan’s possession — the spider walk, the head spinning, the green vomit, and the crucifix masturbation — does feel like a conscious choice to explore the horrors of female puberty, and the terror that comes from a mother and from the church when a young woman’s sexuality blossoms. Regan’s self-carving of “HELP ME” into her stomach addresses how even when nearly all hope is lost for her, she still clings to whatever tiny sense of bodily autonomy she still has. The crucifix masturbation is an especially careful choice from Blatty and Friedkin — sexually graphic in a way that few other films are, especially as related to a child, totally sacrilegious to the celibate priests trying to perform the exorcism, and conceptually devastating as a form of self-mutilation — it is nonetheless one of the most singular images in all of horror, and speaks to an overall male fear of teenage female sexuality. 


The Exorcist is continually lauded as the best and scariest horror film because it presents us with images and concepts so graphic that we cannot help but allow them to get under our skin. Even if the idea of possession defies all logic, you can’t help but feel a little more aware of your own body while watching this film. Most horror films are about the loss of the self, whether that means the physical self, the emotional self, or the psychological self, and The Exorcist hits on all three of those fears, as personified in Regan MacNeil. It’s a truly remarkable thing that the most notorious (banned on video in the UK until 1999 derided by the Catholic League, and possessed by demon according to Billy Graham) horror film of all time is on some level about male fears about teenage female sexuality, and the death of innocence.


And with that, we conclude 31 Days of Feminist Horror Films. I’ve really enjoyed unpacking these films, and I hope this series has helped you better delve into the idea of the female experience as it is explored in horror, presented you with a new take on an old favorite, or simply given you more thoughtful scary movies to watch this fall. I’ll never stop talking about women in horror, as I feel that the genre offers a unique window into the female body, psyche, and social experience, and explores a variety of topics that are still rarely touched upon in most mainstream films. I also wanted to note that I really, really tried to find more horror films with women of color or LGBTQ women in the lead, or those made by women of color/LGBTQ women, but there are a dearth of those horror films out there — all the more reason we need more women behind the camera in genre filmmaking. As a super special spooky Halloween treat, here are 31 more feminist horror films for your viewing pleasure:


The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

Heavenly Creatures


The Final Girls

Starry Eyes

The Company of Wolves

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Rosemary’s Baby

Mulholland Dr.

Under the Skin



The Stepfather

The Haunting

The Descent


Pan’s Labyrinth

Dark Water


Night of the Comet


A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night


A Tale of Two Sisters

The Guest

American Mary

The Hunger


Poison Ivy

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural

Black Swan

Full List:

American Psycho

Near Dark



The Babadook

We Need to Talk About Kevin




The Craft

Picnic at Hanging Rock

The Slumber Party Massacre


Black Christmas


Drag Me To Hell

I Spit on Your Grave

Ms. 45

Ginger Snaps


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Trouble Every Day

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Eyes of Laura Mars

The Innocents

We Are What We Are

Cat People

Death Becomes Her

Eyes Without a Face


The Exorcist



31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: CAT PEOPLE


Perpetually lauded for its use of shadow and suggestion to create scares, Cat People still feels incredibly modern and spooky 70 years after its release. Serbian fashion designer Irena (Simone Simon) meets Oliver at the Central Park Zoo while sketching a panther, and the two strike up a flirtation, which leads back to Irena’s apartment. Noticing a strange statue of King John of Serbia fighting a large cat, Oliver asks for more details from Irena, who tells him about how her village turned to Satan worshipping and witchcraft after being enslaved by Mameluks, but some of her fellow villagers fled into the mountains to escape, thus eventually becoming Cat People, including Irena’s mother — this conversation all happens through suggestion, and throughout the film, director Jacques Tourneau allows the audience to fill in the narrative blanks with their imaginations of some of the more taboo elements of being a cat person.


Irena fears her feline bloodline — which turns her into a panther when angry, or more pressingly for Oliver, aroused — will ruin her relationship with Oliver (especially after his thwarted attempt to buy her a kitten) but Oliver is persistent, and they quickly marry. But of course, Irena will not consummate the marriage because she’s afraid of killing her husband during sex, and a frustrated Oliver turns to his assistant, Alice (Jane Randolph) for comfort. He eventually decides that Irena see a psychologist to deal with her issues about their marriage, Dr. Judd, but Dr. Judd has a far more lascivious interest in Irena than just a doctor/patient relationship. Angry about her husband’s betrayal by going to Alice and frustrated by the process of therapy, Irena grows more violent: killing sheep at the zoo, stalking Alice through Central Park as a male predator would, and following her to a swimming pool in the film’s scariest sequence, which is done all via shadow. Oliver too realizes that he cannot make it work with Irena, telling her he wants a divorce so that he can be with Alice, and Irena reacts poorly, menacing her husband and Alice at work. She then tries one final time to find peace with some help from Dr. Judd, but when he tries to seduce her instead, Irena turns into a panther and kills him before fleeing to the Central Park Zoo once again, closely followed by Oliver and Alice. At the zoo, Irena takes responsibility for her actions, and allows herself to be killed by the panther she was drawing when she first met Oliver — it’s an ultimately tragic ending for her character.


Released during the Hays Code era in Hollywood, it’s kind of amazing that a 1942 film deals so matter of factly with a sexually confident lead who is so concerned with the raw power of her desires becoming dangerous that she denies herself love, passion, and companionship. The idea that Irena has descended from a long line of sexually aggressive female feline predators who lead a matriarchal society is really radical, as is the idea of a Serbian community relying on witchcraft and black magic to survive after their Christian beliefs have been stripped away. Likewise, the frankness with which the film deals with divorce feels incredibly progressive, and it’s a relief to see Oliver and Alice portrayed as normal, flawed folks who’ve found themselves in a romantic bind, just as it is refreshing to see Irena defined by more than her marital status. Dr. Judd is another totally progressive character, and his lack of morality in dealing with Irena, his patient, ultimately leads to his death. Irena is a fascinating horror protagonist, one who’s outsider experience as a Serbian immigrant with “wild” ways makes her infinitely relatable to anyone who has felt alienated as an American, and her final act of self-sacrifice is incredibly moving. By now, the idea of female sexual desire as deadly is well-trod territory in horror, but Cat People is  an incredibly important film in the genre for introducing the concept of female sexual autonomy, the power of female desire, and for dealing with adult relationships in a frank, nuanced manner in order to better serve the horror narrative. 

31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: THE INNOCENTS


One of Martin Scorsese’s favorite horror films, The Innocents relies on the power of suggestion and subtlety to create scares that are still totally deeply upsetting more than 50 years after its release. The divine Deborah Kerr stars as a governess, Miss Giddens, assigned to care for two young children, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stevens) by their uncle, who cannot be bothered to care for them and gives Miss Giddens total control over the children. For a time, Miss Giddens enjoys an idyllic existence with Flora and the omniscient housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, at their British country estate, but that all changes when Miles arrives home, kicked out of his boarding school with no explanation. Flora’s behavior begins to get more bizarre with the arrival of Miles, and he’s far too mature for his age, flirting with Miss Giddens in a very adult fashion, and even kissing her on the lips for far longer than what would be considered an innocent peck.


Miss Giddens is also plagued by visions of a sinister man who appears in windows, and a sort of lady of the lake, waiting spookily in the reeds of the estate’s lake. Mrs. Grose explains that these are in fact apparitions of Miss Jessel, the former governess, and Quint, a valet that Miss Jessel was having an abusive, publically sexual affair with — the film never tells us just how much the children saw of these liaisons, or if they were possibly involved, which only adds to the creepy factor. Miss Giddens becomes obsessed with the idea that Miss Jessel and Quint have inhabited the children so that they continue their romantic relationship, and this possession is the cause of the children’s increasingly secretive, strange behavior. To give more away than that would spoil the surprises of the film, but it really speaks to the power of suggestion that the final moments of The Innocents are still totally chilling after 50 years of far more explicit horror films.


Adapted from the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw by Truman Capote and William Archibald, the theme of repressed sexuality is the film’s most pervasive narrative takeaway. Poor undersexed Miss Giddens is forced to confront her semi-spinstery ways every time she’s confronted by overly mature come-ons from Miles, Flora’s eerie, romantic non-sequiturs, and descriptions of the brutality in Jessel and Quint’s relationship from Mrs. Grose. The exquisite imagery in the film — a beetle crawling from a stone totem’s mouth, white roses that dot the estate’s landscape, the slightest of changes to Miss Giddens prim hair and dress as her hold on sanity wavers — reflect her unraveling, as well as the strange sexual undercurrents happening at the estate. It is of course also possible that Miss Giddens has been made a bit mad by her own unsatisfied sexual desires and has made the ghost story of Jessel and Quint up to deal with her own inability to comprehend their sexual relationship, but the film smartly creates far more questions than answers about what exactly has transpired. Kerr was 40 at the time of filming, which was certainly “old maid” territory in the 1960s, and it’s a totally bold choice to have a gothic horror film led by two middle-aged women, with Mrs. Grose as the film’s sane center. The proto-electronic synth score from Daphne Oram, a female pioneer in electronic music, gives the entire film an unsettling edge, as does the lush black and white cinematography by David Lynch regular, Freddie Francis. The Innocents is the kind of spooky that gets under your skin and stays there thanks to the film’s restraint, which perfectly echoes the untapped passions of its unmarried, middle-aged female lead.


31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: EYES OF LAURA MARS


This film could alternately be titled The Female Gaze: The Movie, as we follow controversial fashion photographer Laura Mars (the always amazing Faye Dunaway) through 1970s New York while she’s plagued by real-time visions of an ice pick killer brutalizing her inner circle. It’s a simple but totally effective trick — by placing the male gaze of women’s bodies and eventual deaths in the POV of the female protagonist, the murders and menace develop a loaded, nauseating weight. The film was written by John Carpenter (with a co-credit from David Zelag Goodman), who has always had a particularly strong grasp of how to deal with violence against women in genre filmmaking — like Halloween, Eyes of Laura Mars is focused on exploring the extreme brutality of sexually-charged killings via shots that place us directly in the male killer’s POV.


The high-fashion, sexually risque photographs taken by Laura throughout the film (shot by Helmut Newton) are also an exploration of the female gaze. Like contemporary fashion photographer Ellen Von Unwerth, Laura Mars isn’t interested in making safe choices with her editorials, and instead opts for provocative, lushly-toned photographs with men and women in various states of undress, with a strong undercurrent of violence. However, the killer starts staging tableaus that mimic Laura’s photographs, she is forced to consider the impact of her work on a male audience, and the ways in which men can often distort and sully a woman’s vision. With this comparative element, the film is able to successfully show the different nature of the male vs. female gaze — Laura’s photographs, even when explicit, are still full of subversive vitality, while the killer’s photographs are flat and grotesque.


Directed with workman-like precision by Irvin Kirshner (George Lucas said that he hired Kirshner for The Empire Strikes Back after seeing a rough cut of this film), the simplicity of Laura Mars works in its favor. Laura has a no-nonsense gay best friend, her power as an independent, working woman isn’t treated as an anomaly, and while the film has mostly traditional beats of a slasher film, there are several legitimate red herrings that lead into the climax. Laura also must contend with two love interests — her recent ex-husband, Michael (Raul Julia), a drunk writer who might be the killer, and John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones), the mysterious detective who’s trying to solve the case. Like Black Christmas, Eyes of Laura Mars makes the point that an unhinged romantic partner is every bit as terrifying as a masked killer, and when it’s revealed that Neville is the killer after turning on Laura during the film’s final moments, the story’s final revelation is its most disturbing: even the most seemingly together folks can have a dark, violent side, and it isn’t always immediately apparent. While Laura technically “wins” in the end by shooting Neville after he begs her to, her life has been ruined thanks to male violence. Eyes of Laura Mars is a thoughtful horror thriller with a unique exploration of the female gaze, the objectification of women, and the ways masculine violence can infiltrate all parts of the female experience.