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All Hail the Weird, Wonderful Goth Girls of Cinema History

From "The Bride of Frankenstein" to "The Craft," goth characters tell the complicated stories of disenfranchised women fighting to reclaim their power.

Kristen Yoonsoo Kim

In the spectrum of women in horror films—the madwoman, the victim, the mother, the final girl—some of the best can be found in the subgenre of goth. The goth character is a mirror to the strange, misunderstood outsiders—an experience that's perhaps more relatable for women. Many of these narratives, of course, manifest as monsters too: Frankenstein's monster and his bride, vampires, and that beast in Possession. This December, New York’s Metrograph theater celebrates all things spooky with a 32-film Goth(ic) series ranging from 1922’s Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages to 2008’s YA romance franchise Twilight. In between are many cult classics and lesser known gems ready to be uncovered.

The role of women in goth films is particularly interesting because there's a deep, traumatizing history of mistreatment and actual witch hunts that informs how female characters behave in these stories. Often, the goth movie femme fatale is presented as especially unhinged; if women exist as marginalized outliers, then the goth woman is even further outside of that. As gothic transitioned into goth—the subculture that emerged alongside bands like The Cure and Bauhaus—these female characters have become more interesting and complex, and often have stories about the complicated ways they attempt to reclaim power.

Early examples set in the 18th and 19th century gothic era often color women as damsels in distress. Even the 1935 classic Bride of Frankenstein shows the titular character created for the man and even though she enters the scene donning one of goth’s greatest do's (an electrifying fro with a streak of white), our monstrous bride comes in at the very end of the film and has no speaking lines. (The actress, Elsa Lanchester, however, plays a different role earlier in the film as Mary Shelley, the mastermind behind this forsaken creation and the mother of sci fi.)

Photo courtesy of Universal via Wikimedia Commons

In the eighties and nineties, alongside the goth subculture renaissance, we start to see female characters with more autonomy. Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) flips the "woman falls in love with/prey to a male vampire" script, with the immortal Catherine Deneuve lusting after David Bowie and then later Susan Sarandon. (There has never been a sexier trio of bloodsuckers.) And one of the most manic depictions of a goth woman comes from Isabelle Adjani in Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981), a post-breakup film like you’ve never seen. In this twisted cult film, Adjani’s Anna leaves her husband for a "new man" who isn't a man at all. Her descent into madness is one of cinema's most chilling transformations.

Also in this era, Winona Ryder emerged as our patron saint of goth, starring in Heathers, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Girl, Interrupted. But it all started with Tim Burton’s 1988 film Beetlejuice, where Ryder plays the moody, split-banged Lydia Deetz whose "I myself am strange and unusual" line became the go-to teen goth motto and all-black attire became the uniform. Lydia Deetz and Ryder's other morose characters bled into an amalgamated persona that was held up as a prototype to many future teen goths, both real and fictional.

Nineties goth films include such cult classics as The Crow, Interview With the Vampire, and the inarguable teen staple The Craft, which follows outcast teen girls who reclaim their power through magic. Though some of would argue that the film's protagonist is a total wet blanket, Fairuza Balk’s hedonistic Nancy embodies the give-no-fucks rebellion of goth.

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One important but lesser known goth woman in cinema history is Rose McGowan’s Amy Blue in the 1995 film The Doom Generation, a futuristic film in which everything costs $6.66. If it was cathartic to rewatch McGowan kick ass in Grindhouse in light of her allegations against Harvey Weinstein, then The Doom Generation's vicious rape revenge storyline might have a similar effect. It’s also a fun trip to watch the crimson-lipped McGowan spit creative insults while chain smoking and stomping around in combat boots.

The goth genre has given us a very specific kind of femme fatale: disenfranchised, bold, and sometimes completely mad. Though Halloween's come and gone, being goth is a 24/7 commitment. This month, let’s get weird, wild, and spooky. We deserve it.