Atmospheric horror brings existential fright to audiences, choosing to compound suspense and anticipation over the course of the film, rather than focusing on gruesome slasher kills or frightening creatures. The horror comes from how these films approach the world with a slow-moving pace and a degree of unease undercutting each scene. Though atmospheric horror films have been well-loved by audiences for many years — just think back to the cult classic Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and in recent years, films like Stoker (2013), The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), and Midsommar (2019) — they have laid the groundwork in highlighting women who gain power and autonomy through their own horrific acts.
In subgenres like the slasher, the revered final girl survives on her wits and innocence. Though recent slashers and horror films, like Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street series (2021), have pushed against this idea, the ending of slashers often focuses on the final girls defeating the terror that comes after them. The women at the forefront of atmospheric (or slow-burn) horror films, however, are these terrors, finding independence and power through committing acts of violence. In constructing women-led atmospheric horror films, directors choose to make their leads sympathetic, warranting feelings of satisfaction when the women arrive at the end of the film, fully in control of their destiny. Stoker, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and Midsommar each follow the lives of grieving women, who must work both through their grief and their lack of agency in their own lives. In using slow-burn horror as a vehicle, these films take on the all-consuming grasp of grief while making space for developing power within their respective characters.
Park Chan-wook’s Stoker acts as a precursor to many woman-led atmospheric horror films that have become popular recently. Though not marketed as a horror film, Stoker relies on building an unsettling atmosphere around India (Mia Wasikowska). After the death of her father — with whom she was very close — India’s mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to stay in her home with her and her mother. Throughout the film, India navigates her grief, hidden family secrets, forbidden love, and lots of violence. As India’s actions become more distressing — she goes from stabbing a classmate with a pencil to becoming near-intimate with her uncle Charlie — Park Chan-wook compounds tension on top of tension, prompting audiences to feel a heightened sense of anxiety. The film succeeds in showcasing how this underlying sense of dread is integral to India’s coming of age. Though her actions are violent, it’s easy to sympathize with India, specifically because her character gains autonomy each time she commits an act of violence leading to her breaking from the confines of her family. In the end, she kills Uncle Charlie and then leaves her home independently (the film closes with her stabbing a sheriff who pulled her over, leaving him bleeding in the middle of some fields). India is far from innocent, yet audiences forgive her actions because the violence was a manifestation of her own feminine power.
By using Stoker as a base to explore these kinds of stories, it’s easier to see the through lines in other films that choose to explore multi-faceted femininity. It’s not just softness and naivety; women can be powerful and terrifying in their own right.
Osgood Perkins’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter expands on displays of terrifying feminine power by following Kat (Kiernan Shipka) after her parents fail to pick her up from boarding school — they died in a car accident. Perkins uses an unsettling score and slow, wide shots to build suspense and tension, contrasting the slow burn with moments of intense terror, as when Rose (Lucy Boynton) finds Kat prostrating in the boiler room. It’s through this terror and Kat’s strengthening relationship with the entity that she is able to overcome her dreadful loneliness, both by her parents dying and her lack of relationships with fellow classmates. Though she kills in horrific, bloody ways, the film itself does not make these kills the center point of the film, instead, it focuses on her finally finding acceptance and companionship, though with an evil entity. Her kills can be forgiven because of her circumstances and how Osgood Perkins tells Kat’s story. It’s not one of fear and terror, it’s tender, focused on a young girl finding strength and using that strength to process intense grief and overcome harrowing loneliness.
The culmination of women finding power through horror is in Ari Aster’s Midsommar as Dani (Florence Pugh) reconciles her grief and guilt to become the May Queen, eventually choosing to sacrifice her boyfriend over a villager to solidify her freedom. It’s Dani’s experience in a blindingly bright atmospheric horror film that perfects the art of making a character sympathetic because of her actions while aligning that same character with supporters and a community. Dani smiles at the end of the film because she has been fully released from her grief, fear, and a relationship that did not serve her. As May Queen, she gains not only autonomy, but she gains a powerful position: she’s now a decision-maker equipped with the ability to choose violence with full backing, no matter how gruesome her choices may be.
Atmospheric horror gives filmmakers the space for intricately created character studies focused on the multitude of ways women can gain agency in their lives. In all three of these films, violence becomes their escape. India and Dani are not shamed for their choices in taking this power for the keeping. While Kat does have agency, she struggles to maintain it at the hands of others around her, though at the end of the film she seeks out that source of power once again. It’s hard to not say “good for her” at the end of these films because each woman does wield her own feminine power. As atmospheric horror films grow as a genre, more women will be able to seek out their own feminine power in line with India, Kat, and Dani. Though the morality of terror and violence is questionable in these films, the only way for the women to gain agency in their lives was to use violence to their advantage. Sometimes, it has to be done.
Sydney Bollinger is a Charleston-based film writer who focuses on the macabre, the teenage experience, and eco-criticism in film. She writes and edits the fortnightly newsletter Thursday Matinee. Read her work in Film Cred, HASH Journal, Cultured Vultures, and other places. Find her online @sydboll.