Do You Have to Like the Horror Heroine?

So I just watched Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and whilst it is a tour de force of cinema, genuinely fantastic – I have never been so frustrated with a protagonist before.

This is something I have been thinking about for a while. One of my housemate’s made a comment about sympathizing with the hero of a horror film, but to be honest I’m not so sure that’s true. So, I am attempting to investigate…


I think there has to be something slightly ‘unlikable’ about a horror character, even one that survives. I would argue with all certainty that the ones who are killed off contain less than desirable traits – think of Laurie’s friends in Halloween (1978) not only do they ditch the children they are supposed to be looking after, but they disrespect Laurie’s feelings by mocking her and use her goodwill to get her to avoid their own responsibilities (Hollywood’s typical view on teenagers). How remorseful are we, when they are inevitably killed?

Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), on the whole, is a pretty likable character, but lets look at the ‘Final Girls’ (Carol Clover’s term) in other slasher films. Sally (Marilyn Burns) from Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is an interesting one. Unlike Laurie, who fits Clover description of a ‘boyish’ and sexless female – which is why she survives – Sally isn’t. She is linked to her boyfriend from the start, she is not boyish )wear a bra for goodness sake!) and she lacks any maternal coding either: her relationship with her brother is strained, and he dies whilst with her. Crucially, for Sally, is she is perhaps the ultimate ‘Scream Queen’. How much can you actually empathize with someone who screams for 30 minutes? Are we pleased when she escapes to fight another day – potentially, star in another film, though Burn’s didn’t actually turn up again – or are we only pleased because that’s how we should feel. Whilst we are not overly sympathetic towards Leatherface, twirling in the sunlight with his chainsaw, I don’t think we are completely bereft of feeling towards him. Unlike the other characters, Leatherface has no dialogue, no way to express that what he knows is doing is wrong or if it all he knows? To the family, he is an animal. Regardless, as spectators we know that we should sympathise with Sally, who has done nothing wrong, and dislike Leatherface who has been trying to kill her. But, as I have been attempting to convey, the coding of these characters is not necessarily Sally = good, Leatherface = bad. Indeed, perhaps we are only pleased that Sally escapes, because the screaming can finally stop (although, this would have happened if she were killed also…)

More likable than Sally?

Thus, I reiterate, there is usually something a little unlikable about the protagonist – perhaps something that implies that they in some way deserve what they get, but they are not as bad as the others and therefore don’t deserve to die. Alice in Friday the 13th (1980), is also frustratingly naive and by no means a sexless goody-two-shoes like Laurie. Again, I found myself slightly distanced from her, perhaps in a way that suggests I needed to be ready to watch her run around screaming, but not feel to attached. If anything, I think Mrs Voorhees, whilst obviously the villain, had more backstory to her.

This is the crux of it – the characters are one dimensional. You don’t need to know their backstory, you’re here to watch them scream and fight for their lives. Laurie, the most sympathetic character, has no family (her father is mentioned briefly), she has no obvious goals, she is studious – a stereotype. Perhaps we sympathize with her in comparison to her friends? In fact, I think it could be argued that the heroine of the Slasher film is the ‘least worst’ girl. She doesn’t survive because we especially sympathize with her – we have to be detached enough to watch her get hurt – but the others are worse, and that is why Laurie, and Sally, and Alice can survive.

Laurie defends herself in Halloween

Returning now, to the start of this post: Rosemary’s Baby – not a slasher film, a psychological horror –  but also featuring, I would argue, a frustrating protagonist. Rosemary shares the traits of a Female Gothic protagonist, a paranoid female at the centre of a setting where everything/everyone is seemingly against her. The paranoid female becomes increasingly more hysterical, and increasingly more irritating, think Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Mia Farrow is fantastic, but Rosemary’s recurrent naivete – despite all that she knows and assumes, becomes frustrating, and arguably a barrier to sympathy. Whilst it is clear Rosemary tries to break out of the clutches of her satanic neighbors, it is always undercut – so, she stops taking the drink, but when the pain stops probably because she’s stopped having the drink she continues and this type of scenario repeats. I realize i’m probably being a little harsh – she was confused and dependent upon her husband, and unlike in the UK Doctor’s are expensive in the US, but honestly, if you have been in pain during your pregnancy for so long – regardless of if it is the spawn of Satan or not – pay the money, get an second opinion. Perhaps don’t spout off about witches though.

The main problem with Rosemary’s paranoid cycle comes n the last twenty minutes of the film, where, frankly, she should know better. I don’t buy the scene where she falls asleep in the Doctor’s office – why didn’t she make him actually check the baby/pills etc. rather than handing him some books on Witches like a weirdo.. Equally, post-birth, she is still accepting of they tell her, and continues to take pills they are giving her (WHY?!), trusting their word when they say they cannot hear a baby when she can. This is where I got frustrated, this is a horror protagonist who has actually learned nothing at all throughout the film. She becomes unbelievably naive at this point, which is where my disconnection with her as a sympathetic protagonist started to kick in.

And finally, most crucially – why does she not use the knife in the final scene? In comparison to the previous films I discussed where all of the ‘Final Girls’ obtain the knife/gun/phallic object and utilise it to defend themselves – Rosemary does nothing. And again, this is a different type of horror film, but I think the sense of the female heroine is comparable. A sticking point for me is – why does she not kill the baby? It isn’t human, that is made clear. I genuinely don’t understand.

Like the Slasher films, there is a disconnect from our Final Girl, Rosemary, who makes it through against all odds (though, unlike the Slasher film, she is stupid enough that if the Witches really wanted to kill her, they could’ve considering she just eats whatever they give her and accepts whatever side-effects she gets!). I wonder if, without the final section of the film, I would have been more sympathetic to her and her paranoia. With all female Gothic texts, there comes a point where the paranoia becomes too much, however, unlike Rebecca, there is no final reconciliation and defeating of the monster which makes up for sitting through two hours of histrionics. Rosemary’s refusal to fight, or indeed, rectify the wrong at the end is what makes her frustrating (though, maybe not to people who are mothers. I don’t know if part of this disconnect is the fact that I have never been pregnant). A question to ponder: how would the ending have been different if she has killed the baby at the end?

Should she do it?

Therefore, I continue to believe that in order to accept the wrongs being done to them the audience must be detached from the main character in some way. There has to be a disconnect – perhaps the disconnect from Rosemary is in order for us to feel completely alienated by her in the end. In the Slasher film, the final girl is ‘mostly’ good, enough for us to want her to survive, but also balanced so we are not distraught when she inevitably gets hurt – this is not a melodrama, I don’t believe we are supposed to be invested in the same way – the audience is supposed to jump, not get their feelings hurt.

I was going to carry on, and talk about how you can like the Monster also, but this post has become, ahem, a monster and I felt I ought to split it into two – another post coming soon. If anyone does genuinely read this blog, please give me a comment with your opinion – would love to hear some more views on this.

(All thoughts are my own, with very little research. I mention Carol Clover’s seminal text “Her Body, Himself” in her book Men Women and Chainsaws, Princeton University Press, 1992.)


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