Domestic and Sexual Violence, Final Girls, and Strong Women in Home Invasion Films

Panic Room, Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart 2002

Home invasion films are among the scariest in the horror genre because the idea of having one’s home and safety intruded upon is a real, everyday threat. Some of the most famous horror movies have a home invasion component, but these same films also tend to reinforce negative stereotypes about women. In addition to the physical and sexual violence against women and girls displayed in this subset, the role of women in society and the home is often reduced to helpless victims who can hardly defend themselves and their families.

The 1992 film Single White Female was a theater hit, but it was full of female stereotypes. In it, Bridget Fonda plays Allie Jones, a woman who willingly allows a cunning businessman to take advantage of her, takes back her cheating fiancé, and beats herself up for killing Hedy Carlson, the psychotic ex-roommate who tried to kill Allie and take over her life. She’s flimsy and a bit too naive. The audience has little sense of who Allie really is, and that’s largely because Allie is a character with a very weak sense of self.

A French film, Inside (2007), is a prime example of extreme violence against women in this genre. Like Single White Female, instead of the killer being a man stalking a woman, we have a woman who ruthlessly hunts down another woman. Alysson Paradis plays Sarah, the film’s pregnant protagonist who is violently assaulted several times. After being beaten in the stomach by a police officer and forced into labor, Sarah is killed and her baby is literally ripped from her body by an unhinged home invader. The film’s writers obviously felt that they could get away with amping up the violence since the killer was also female, something that audiences wouldn’t as easily accept if the killer had been a man.

Home invasion movies also have an issue with overuse of the “final girl” trope. We’ve all seen it before: a film’s characters are picked off one by one, and the remaining survivor is a female who either manages to get away from the killer or kills the killer herself. The “final girl” is always easy to spot from the beginning of a horror movie because she’s the one who is the weakest link, the virginal good girl, or the whining wimp. In the odd instance that the final girl doesn’t fit this mold and actually has some gumption, she usually ends up being punished somehow.

The clever, physically, and mentally strong women and girls, and the ones who have no shame about themselves, don’t typically get to survive in these movies–and that’s the problem. It’s not a positive thing for audiences to see strong women struck down, but it does speak to how society actually works. Women who aren’t a threat to the status quo or men’s egos are punished, while the soft-speaking, innocent types generally get a pass.

Take Erin, the protagonist and “final girl” from the 2011 independent film You’re Next, which is now a late-night cable TV favorite. Erin is fierce and armed with survivalist skills, which allows her to be the sole survivor after a group of killers takes out her boyfriend’s family. However, Erin isn’t rewarded at the end of the movie. She’s shot by a blundering police officer and becomes the target of an investigation into the killings. She’s victimized during the invasion, and then again, after literally fighting for her life. Had Erin been an Eric, no doubt the movie would not have ended this way.

The same can be said of the character Anna from the 1997 film Funny Games. She witnesses the slaughter of her family and then manages to get away from a pair of killers using sheer will and bravery, only to be nonchalantly killed in the end. The violence is senseless and inexplicable, which is part of what makes the movie terrifying. But the question has to be asked: after all she had endured, why was Anna so thoughtlessly disposed of? It mimics what happens to women in real life all too often.

It can definitely be said that the themes in home invasion films are a metaphor for the real life domestic and sexual violence that women encounter on a daily basis. All hope for home invasion horror films isn’t lost, however. Some movies positively depict women as a whole, such as The Strangers, a 2008 film which starred Liv Tyler in the role of Kristin. No eroticism is tied to the violence in the movie, Kristin isn’t portrayed as helpless, and she’s a character who isn’t afraid to fight or defend herself and her boyfriend. She embodies the idea that women can handle their own and completely shirk society’s sexist notions of what’s acceptable for a woman to do.

The 2002 movie Panic Room is another film in which women and girls take a diversion from the usual blueprint followed by home invasion films. In it, Jodie Foster plays a divorced mom named Meg Altman who sets off to start a new life with her daughter, Sarah (a young Kristen Stewart). Meg is brave, daring, smart, and she does absolutely everything she can to save her daughter and herself. Not only does she help her daughter through a shocking experience, Meg pulls it together and commits to moving on to a better life for the two of them in the aftermath.

Wait Until Dark is an earlier example of home invasion films which broke the mold. The 1967 classic movie stars Audrey Hepburn as Susy, a blind woman who gets caught up in a home invasion conducted by a gang of drug dealers. Without her sight, she has to use her intuition and determination to survive. Susy could have easily been portrayed as helpless and pitiful, but she has a strength that is undeniable. The intruders don’t think Susy will be much of a threat or a challenge, but she proves them, and the audience, wrong.

These three movies are a great example of what films in this genre can (and should) be. Extreme sexual and physical violence against women isn’t needed to create a masterful psychological thriller, and audiences can indeed be satisfied with a movie that doesn’t hinge on tired tropes and stereotypes. A home invasion film can be thrilling and have an awesome storyline without relying on misogyny, and it’s about time the trend in this genre turned a different direction.