Classifying Cinema’s Scariest Women


Hammer Films is a Gothic horror legend, thanks to their tremendous output during the ’70s. The company is back in full swing today, adding the upcoming Woman in Black to their prolific and chilling library. Mr. Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, is starring in the adaptation of the 1983 ghost tale by Susan Hill, which hits theaters on February 3. He plays a young lawyer who is sent to a remote English village where dark secrets and a mysterious woman haunt him. It’s a throwback tale reminiscent of Hammer’s classic supernatural stories.

We felt inspired by Hammer’s timeless take on the ghostly woman to explore other “women in black” — cinema’s clichéd, frightful feminine figures. Since February is also Women in Horror Month, what better way to celebrate than checking out some of film’s “scariest” female character types? Click through for more, and share your picks below.

The Obsessed Woman

When she’s not boiling your pet rabbit for ignoring her calls ( Fatal Attraction ), she’s breaking your legs with a sledgehammer ( Misery ), or creepily pretending to be you and sleeping with your boyfriend ( Single White Female ). Far too often incited by a jilted love affair, the obsessed woman’s infatuation is usually based on an imagined connection that feels warm and fuzzy to her, but let’s face it: she’s insane.

The Ghostly Woman

Hammer’s Woman in Black is based on an original novel, but the idea of a ghostly woman has been one of cinema’s most popular creepy female clichés for decades. While there have been many films that have utilized the supernatural spirit of a wistful woman to drive their narrative, Japanese horror cinema probably wins the award for using this device the most. Ratcheting up the psychological terror and tension in a movie, the yūrei is a vengeful mythological figure in Japanese culture that has made its way to the big screen many times, most popular in the 1990s and early 2000s. Her story usually revolves around a murder or suicide, the tragedy leaving her restless and often malevolent. See: Ringu (or the American movie, The Ring), Ju-on (or the American remake, The Grudge), Dark Water (both the Japanese and American versions), One Missed Call (or the Japanese film, Chakushin Ari).

Thanks to a recent resurgence of 1970’s occult horror — recalling popular films like The Exorcist — the demonically possessed woman has started to overshadow the ghost girl. The current popularity of supernatural horror, however, means the wandering female spirit is probably here to stay for a while.

Scary Mommies

The psychotic maternal instinct can be aroused due to the loss of a child ( Inside ) — or as a revenge tactic for losing your family ( The Hand That Rocks the Cradle ) — but often times it’s just implied that the woman was born evil, or was raised by someone who made her that way ( Flowers in the Attic ). Sometimes this is used for comical effect ( Serial Mom ), and other times less intentionally ( The Baby ).

The Wronged Outcast

Lonely nerds, bullied weirdos, and other malcontent freaks fight back, but the weird part about the wronged outcast is how often cinema implies that their empowerment — no matter how insane it may be enacted — requires supernatural powers to be applied ( The Craft and Carrie ).

The Hot Girl Who Snaps

The attractive woman who loses her marbles is probably one of the most overused female tropes, and also the cliché with the worst implications — at least from a feminist perspective. Most violently unhinged “hot girls” lose their clothes as readily as they lost their minds, glamorizing their psychosis for male viewing pleasure. These women can easily fit into one of our other categories, but it’s generally made clear that they’re in the film for their looks and not their backstory. One of the more interesting ways directors have transcended the stereotype is by suggesting that the reach for perfection or beauty incited the mental breakdown ( Black Swan ). Other movies have tried to toy with the hackneyed hot girl by parodying her position of power ( Jennifer’s Body , Jawbreaker ).

The Standard Psychopath

You can diagnose these women as narcissistic or pathological liars, but let’s not mince words: they’re complete and utter psychopaths. Murder is a hobby for them, and Basic Instinct ‘s crazed novelist Catherine Tramell is probably the most villainous of them all. Basic Instinct 2 tried to provide reasons for Catherine’s psychosis (risk addiction), but the charismatic killer is so manipulative we have to wonder if she managed to influence her own diagnosis.

The Abused Victim

The horrific evils (sexual abuse and domestic violence) inflicted upon women as children ( Audition , Natural Born Killers ) or adults ( Monster ) can manipulate our sympathies and make us question if the blood on their hands is warranted.

Slaughtering Self-Discoverers

Sometimes in film, a little bloodshed can allow a woman to also shed her inhibitions ( Teeth ), sense of hopelessness and confusion (Ginger Snaps), or the disparaging view she has of herself ( May ). Often, horror cinema’s way of revealing this transformation is to associate the monstrous and the feminine, which empowers the woman through her newfound, grisly abilities. Tragically, not all women can accept this darker, overwhelming side of themselves ( Cat People ).