Women in Horror: Innocents

I wanted to take a look at another type of gal who we find in some horror stories and movies. By innocents I don’t necessarily mean victims. These are the women who are a little more reactionary. Maybe they’re prey to whatever is going on, maybe the events help them to find a stronger part of themselves. All of them, though have a certain feminine quality and a little bit of naivete. We want then to succeed, we want them to survive, escape, defeat the things that are after them. Because we feel for them, because they’re so likable, it often makes the outcomes of their stories that much more tragic or triumphant.

Eleanor Vance from The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – While the book is still the best (though the first movie is good, too), all of the variations usually portray Eleanor as an emotionally exhausted and downtrodden women who hasn’t gotten a chance to have much of a life. She’s taken care of her mother up to the opening of the movie, and now that her mother is gone she has no purpose. She desperately craves not only a purpose, but a place to belong. And when there’s a potentially malevolent house looking for people to torment, well…it’s kind of a match made in heaven. What makes Eleanor special, though, isn’t that she’s a victim. She doesn’t just run around screaming. Indeed, most of the actual haunting in the book is pretty vague. As the events go on, though, she becomes more and more obsessed with the house. She begins to crave the adventure it’s giving her, the affection and attention fro the others in her group…she’s almost like the middle child who finally gets a chance to shine before things go horribly wrong. Once she falls over the edge and gets too attached to the house, she’s sent away, and this one event leads to a conclusion that the reader has to make their own mind up about. Is she truly being played by a haunted house? Is she so unable to live on her own that she can’t picture a life without a purpose, without the house? The way Shirley Jackson handles her downward spiral is masterful and delicate. As I’ve said before, I’ve never had the lyrics of an art song give me chills, but Eleanor turns loving lyrics into something that could be interpreted as downright crazy. I had to read the ending of the book three times before I believed it, and even then I felt like something had been torn out of me, that surely such a kind character who hadn’t gotten what she deserved in life couldn’t have gotten that ending. Well she does, and it works because she’s so masterfully written.

Claudia from The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice – Condemned to a supernatural life simply because she was there, Claudia is probably one of the best female characters in all of horror. Say what you want about Anne Rice, it was a bold move to explore what being a growing spirit locked in a child’s body would really mean. Claudia not only exhibits the naive playfulness of a little girl, but also a child’s cruelty. As she grows older her desperation and longing to become a woman are palpable, and you really can’t blame her for all her anger. I like the fact that she isn’t just kept as a little girl type of character; indeed, the juxtaposition of adult mind in child’s body makes her even more terrifying. Add to that the tendency to play with her food and manipulate her “fathers,” and you get an emotional, soulful killer with no way to get the satisfaction she craves. She’s also desperate and brave enough to have Armand do whatever it takes to put her in a woman’s body, a longing which he manipulates to get her out of the way. Her demise is tragic, though we all know she could never be happy in the way she wanted to be.  The very fact that she shows up in so many books and haunts Louis, Lestat, and others, shows how much of an impact her character has on the series.

Delirium from The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman – The youngest of The Endless, Delirium comes across as a young girl in a world of ever-changing chaos. However, there are times when she does pull herself together and reveals that she has insights that the other members of her family don’t. Indeed, she and Death are possibly the only two of the family that have any knowledge of life outside of the end of the universe, and she also reveals that she knows paths out of Destiny’s garden where only she can go. Most of her family is fond of her and she’s often used for comic relief, but there are some really heartfelt sequences, especially when she goes looking for her brother Destruction. In her own way she tries to protect her family and often has prophetic insight (that doesn’t make sense until it’s too late, like when she tries to get Dream to help her find her dog Barnabas to protect him from danger in The Kindly Ones). Her speech and mannerisms often have bizarre consequences, some humorous and some cruel. She’s one of those characters you want to hug or dance with, and while reading the series I always tensed up a little reading about her, hoping that she’d get through the action all right. Originally Delight, something horrible happened to her that turned her into Delirium, so there’s a constant undercurrent of empathy that you feel when reading about her exploits in the series. We don’t need to know what happened because the effects of it are so palpable.

Sue Snell from Carrie by Stephen King – While she is one of the girls who originally bullies Carrie, Sue is more of a typical high school girl. She”s popular but more of a beta type, and she is genuinely aware of her place in the social structure and what it must be like to be in Carrie’s position. Carrie becomes a cause for her, to the point where she sets her up with her own boyfriend Tommy for a prom date. Sue is likable and we get to know her through her own ponderings about what her good deeds mean: would Tommy fall for Carrie? What if her own intimacy with Tommy has resulted in a child? As the prom reaches its eventual conclusion she rushes out and witnesses the death of Carrie, horrified and sympathetic. So often everyone is caught up with the title character and her mother after reading this book, but Sue Snell jumped off the pages at me when I read it. It’s like a random high school girl was tossed into a Stephen King novel. She didn’t necessarily mean anything by joining in the bullying, just like so many girls go along with things because it’s happening and better someone else than them. She’s an amazing vantage point for the reader, evoking both sympathy and irritation. She becomes a scapegoat to those who want someone to blame for the whole Black Prom incident, but her words really tie the whole book and all the doctor and court additions in the novel together. She firmly points out that they were kids when the events happened. They were acting like kids. It’s a strong statement, and whether you agree with her or not, whether you see her as part of the problem or someone who attempted to redeem herself, she’s a character you can admire, get frustrated by, and feel sorry for.

Kirsty in The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker – Although Julia is the consummate female villain in this book (unfortunately I couldn’t decide how to categorize her, but she’s also a favorite of mine), Kirsty is inherently good. In the novella she’s the friend of Rory who is secretly in love with him. She looks out for him, and is worried by Julia’s strange behavior. Suspecting her of having an affair, Kirsty is nearly killed by Frank and ends up accidentally solving the puzzle box. Kirsty is smart enough to tell the Cenobites about Frank and make a bargain for her freedom. Once Frank is taken back by the Cenobites, it’s Kirsty that’s entrusted with the puzzle box until someone else seeks it out. Whether they hope that she’ll become tainted enough to join them or whether she’s too good to be affected by it, the development is still kind of amazing and horrifying. Through everything that happens, her lasting impression in the book is that she feels that she doesn’t sense Rory in the box, and wonders if there are other boxes that can be solved to find him, maybe in heaven or paradise. Her optimism and faith in Rory, despite the fact that he’s unavailable and she doesn’t make a pass at him, is kind of amazing. In fact, while reading this for the first time I wasn’t exactly sure what Kirsty was to Rory. It’s that subtle and slow. Is it any wonder that she’s reincarnated into his counterpart’s teenage daughter in the movie Hellraiser? I like her because she believes in Rory, but she’s not stupid. She’s aggressive enough to get herself out of danger, and bold enough to deal with the Cenobites in a way that saves her own skin and soul without degrading herself or destroying her character. Again, it’s almost like a random good girl next door just happened to be dropped into a Clive Barker novella.

Ophelia from Pan’s Labyrinth – A girl who is captivated by fairy tales, you can either take this film as-is, with her bravely performing the tasks given to her by the faun, or see it as her fantasies while she deals with her cruel stepfather. Whatever your interpretation is, Ophelia is generous enough to ask for help for her mother, childlike enough to fall prey to a standard fairy tale technicality, and innocent enough to either believe in fairies or innocent enough to see them. She’s also kind enough to not sacrifice her brother for her own gain. The whole movie is a mash up of wartime cruelty (and some fairy tale horrors) pressed up against the brave actions of a truly amazing and sweet little girl. She doesn’t come off as syrupy or trying too hard. She’s simply a child trying to get home or hoping that she’s someone special (the Princess Moanna of the Underworld). Whatever your interpretation, whether you believe she makes it back home byway of her own sacrifice or whether the last few minutes are the fantasy of a dying girl, this movie is intense and Ophelia is an exceptional protagonist. While this film is technically dark fantasy, it’s also very, very dark, so she definitely makes the list.

Christine in Poseidon’s Children by Michael West – A resident of a small island where the inhabitants have shape-changing abilities, Christine is also the daughter of the Teacher, and has the gift of leadership passed on to her. What makes her interesting, though, is that she’s also a rebellious girl, ignoring the warnings of her parents and her mother’s teachings to fall in love with Karl Tellstrom, a young man with a thirst for revenge against humans. Despite being sucked into his cult, she still remains likable. You feel sorry for her. She’s obviously in love, obviously doesn’t want to believe the one she loves and the father of her unborn child is crazy enough to commit genocide. She wants to believe in him, wants to believe that things are as black and white as he makes it out to believe. All through the book she’s played against her parents and against another love interest, as well as different humans who get mixed up in the action. At the final hour she realizes how wrong she was and helps protect her people from the man she loves, eventually leading them to a new, safer location. Still, she isn’t instantly zapped with a leadership vibe. She isn’t eloquent. She’s nervous, terrified, and brash. She’s believable, but the way she approaches her people makes it realistic that they would jump ship and follow her. And the fact that she can change into a killer fish person just makes it an extra bonus.

Cecy in From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury – A gentler read than the rest, the book still uses a lot of horror standards and turns them on their heads. Cecy is one of the first and most important members in the makeshift Elliott family featured in the book. She mostly sleeps in the attic but can project herself out all over the world and possess anyone at will. It’s how she experiences life and learns. Although portrayed as seventeen, she’s also revered and rumored to be one of the older ones in the house. One of the most beautiful appearances she makes is in The April Witch, where she longs to be in love. Sending herself out astrally, she puts herself into another girl and tags along on her date, enchanting the young man, even though she can never truly have him. This still doesn’t dissuade her from trying to set up a meeting face to face, though it seems a fruitless endeavor.  It’s a sad story full of longing on many levels. What’s fascinating is in other parts of the book she exhibits innocent cruelty, like when she tells Timothy of her travels as she goes along, hopping into a woman and leading her towards a bubbling mud pit, only exiting once the woman has stepped into it. From her new host of a bird she watches the woman sink until her fingertips are buried. Although she longs to be in love and you get the sense she doesn’t know what that means, in another story she inhabits the grandfather’s mind and goads him with exploits of how she’s hopped into the minds of couples making love and other creatures in heat. She plays her own brand of tricks, taunting young Timothy (the only mortal in the house), yet she’s also there to comfort him, as well. When danger comes to the house, she’s the one that drives it away, and comes up with the plan to get everyone to safety once they’ve been discovered by the village. It’s an odd conglomeration for a character, yet it works with her beautifully. Through it all, her quest to be in love and be loved isn’t forgotten (proving that her heart really is determined and innocent) and her ending in the book is bittersweet and beautiful. She has a childlike meanness at times, but that balances out her kindness and makes her that much more believable.

The horror genre takes all types of women to make it tick, and the stories mentioned wouldn’t be the same without these characters. They’re the balance, the light to the shadow, even if they have shadows themselves. They provide a distinct sense of feminine energy without descending into over-the-top territory. These are examples of innocence done well. If they meet their demise, you feel for it. It hurts to lose them, even in a story. If they succeed, you also feel it and are happy and relieved for them. They may not be as experienced or aggressive as their badassed sisters, they may have their heads screwed on better (initially at least) than their crazy siblings, but they’re far from boring. They have their own place in the genre, and lend their own magic to the stories they appear in.

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