Empowering women in horror - from Phantasmagoria to Decarnation

Empowering women in horror Clementine and young Jill Valentine with post apocalyptic background

Empowering women in horror Clementine and young Jill Valentine with post apocalyptic background

Classic horror movies from the 80s popularized the figure of the female protagonist. The genre needed a character vulnerable enough so that the audience could be scared along with them, but one that also got stronger as the story went on. Traditionally, men in horror movies were written to be brave heroes that would save everyone from the clutches of evil. They could never be scared. As for horror games, main characters were traditionally written to be more in line with gaming's unique mechanics, rather than cinema's passive style.

Since the protagonist is usually the player’s avatar, they could not simply be a weak scaredy-cat. Gamers had to be empowered, playing as someone who could be headstrong against demons and ghosts - be that Rick Taylor from Splatterhouse, Harry Mason in Silent Hill or, to a lesser extent, Ethan Mars from Heavy Rain. Despite having their own little moments of fear, they were not written to need saving or to run away from demons or maniacs screaming.

Empowering women in horror Toni Collette in Hereditary
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That is not to say we haven’t seen strong female protagonists in horror games. Even the original inspiration for Resident Evil, Sweet Home, had two female characters on the team. In later Japanese horror games, such as Clock Tower and Fatal Frame, young girls would often be the main characters. Still, being all about brains rather than brawns, they seemed to be mostly written as the target of cheap scares. And they were often sexualized to make them more appealing to the young male gamer demographic.

Jill Valentine from Resident Evil is a great example, as she is a fan favorite and has appeared in various titles in the franchise. Capcom’s writing of the character seems to portray her as little more than a counterpart to her male team members. She is a strong female character who can overcome any obstacle or difficult situations. But her character never develops any further than this, even in more recent Resident Evil entries.

Empowering women in horror Fatal Frame Maiden of Black Water
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From the 80s to today, the role of women in horror movies has certainly changed, as easily observed in great performances such as Toni Collette in Hereditary and Annabelle Wallis in Malignant. Gone seem to be the days of the easily scared teenage girls of Nightmare or Scream, as placeholders for the audience to be scared alongside them. Or, even worse, the “morally upright” girl who is chosen to survive the maniac’s assaults. They are mature women, fully fledged characters that go through their own narrative arcs, facing their personal demons to come out the other side swinging.

In video games, a good early example of the trend can be found in Adrienne from Phantasmagoria. Roberta Williams wrote the main protagonist to go through a personal transformation, surely inspired by the genre’s classic b-movies, but also to be more than the target of cheap scares or to be sexualized. Adrienne goes from being the victim of her husband’s slow descent into madness, but is finally able to take control of the horrifying situation. She does what she can to defend herself from a world that wants to take her over, objectify her and drown her screams.

But are modern horror games following this new inspiration of fully fleshed out women protagonists? Partially, surely games do not seem ready to embrace the change of having mature women portrayed as main characters, in horror games or otherwise. The medium seems to be yet unable to accept that the audience is getting older, while apparently still stuck in the early late teenage/young 20s phase.

empowering women in horror
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While it is a comforting thought to think that games would evolve and grow old alongside their audience, the writing in games does not seem to really support that theory. Today, we expect stories that are not simply about jump scares or monsters coming out of the closet. But, luckily, we are able to find exceptions. One would be the psychological horror of Decarnation.

Filtered through the Yume Nikki aesthetic, the adventure from French developer Atelier QDB features a protagonist battling between dreams, nightmares and reality to escape her kidnappers, finding the strength to give her life a different direction. Echoing the harrowing shadows of Andrej Zulawski’s Possession, Mimi is lost between a world that wants to take over her body and mind. Waking horrors and night terrors that hide a deeper meaning. The need to dive deep inside herself, finding again her will and intuition to get back up.

In Hellblade, however, it is not about the story but the mechanics that involve the player in the troubling mental issues of Senua. We go through hell and back to finally find the light at the end of the tunnel with Senua. It’s a journey through her psychosis, and battling the voices in her head that try to keep her down and not rise up to the challenge. As a juxtaposition, Senua’s journey from the darkest depths to the light is not entirely removed from the classic narrative arc of the female horror protagonist.

empowering women in horror aloy
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Being often the subject of harassment and inequality, horror would be the perfect place to start for women to be truly empowered and get back up fighting after being tormented by demons (usually men). In Season 1 of the Walking Dead, for example, little Clementine needs to constantly be rescued, but by the end she has grown strong and independent. She stands up on her own two feet, arming herself to go to battle against the horrors that keep her from the rightful freedom she deserves.

While women have often been the victims in horror, and other times the monster (such as Lady Mamiya in Sweet Home), it is important to leave space for all kinds of women protagonists in horror games. As players we have everything to gain from a more diverse and mature selection of women protagonists in games, both in horror and general, as they are still fighting an uphill battle against a society that wants to keep them down and silence their voices. There’s nothing more horrific than reality, in the end.

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