Dressed to kill: 6 ways horror folklore is fashioned in the movies

The famous saying goes, “Beauty comes with pain.” This phrase implies that to understand what society considers beautiful, you need to explore ugly things. Enter the horror film.

Horror films often explore the “dread of differences” in society. Cinema scholars such as Barry Keith Grant studied the gender roles in horror films.

Women’s violence, as both perpetrators and targets of horror in pursuit of sexual freedom and social empowerment — and to fulfill their desires — is a reflection of a changing and conflicted society.

In the book Dressing to Kill on Screen and Literature that we edited, we examined how horror literature and film are expressed through costume and fashion. We used our backgrounds in fashion, folklore, and literature to inform the way we approached the topic of clothing’s importance in the horror genre.

We show how the costumes and roles of movies are used to express common fears about femininity.

The Ghost

The popular image of a haunting white woman is a gothic horror trope that has its roots in European Folklore, dating back to pre-Christian and pagan periods. The White Lady often appeared by moonlight, whether she was dressed in white mourning clothes or a burial shroud.

The movie The Ring (2002), based on Japanese horror films with the same title, derived from the novel Koji Suzuki, shows how the ghost is interpreted in the modern world as a symbol of anxiety over new technology, changes in social relationships, and the impact of technological change. The ghost in the white dress is seen not by moonlight but by the blue glow from a television. Naomi Watts plays a journalist investigating a cursed tape that kills viewers seven days after they watch it.

For their Rodarte Fall Show in 2008, Kate and Laura Mulleavy were inspired by the white shirtdress that Sadako wore, the vengeful ghost video from the original 1998 Japanese film.

The bride

The figure of the bride is a symbol of horror. It represents the broken promise of a virginal woman who was abandoned or murdered before her wedding. This image also represents anxiety over domesticity. The Bride of Chucky (2000) depicts the horrors that two murderous dolls are willing to go through to become human.

Dolls are used to teach girls how to be mothers and wives in the future. Fashion dolls also herald new fashions. This doll offers a whole new set of possibilities to those who dare play with it. Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), bored by the expectations of womanhood as a conventional sex icon and housewife, transforms herself from a Martha Stewart to a crazed killer in the home and outside. Barbie, eat your heart.

The mother

Mothers who subvert expected norms are a common theme of horror and folklore. In the movie Octavia’s Ma(2019), Octavia plays a traumatized mother who drugs and locks her daughter up to keep her safe. The film is about a veterinary assistant named Sue Ann (Spencer), who is asked to buy alcohol by a group (mostly white). They call her Ma.

Spencer noted that because of systemic racism, Black women have had limited opportunities in Hollywood to play roles that push stereotypes about Black women as caregivers. The actor stated that one of the appeals of starring as Ma is going beyond this mold and subverting Black People dying at the start of horror films.


Viewers learn Sue Ann experienced humiliating teen years, and what begins as apparent friendly support soon spirals out of control.

The film explores the depths of Sue Ann’s resentment and her fears for her daughter in her quest to avenge herself. Sue Ann transforms from wearing scrubs to a glamorous outfit in a classic scene. Ma is seated at her mirror vanity table, applying lipstick in front of red candles. She says “Pow” to her mirror before going downstairs to kick a beer can pyramid.

Acid-washed jeans, black lace, and leopard prints are among her retro looks. These outfits, seen through the eyes of teens who find her “uncool,” show society’s dissatisfaction with women who step out of their traditional roles as mothers and caregivers in order to maintain equality.

The vampiress

The female vampire flips the idea of female sexuality in horrifying and disturbing ways. The archetype of a man-eater was so popular in early cinema that it became a look recognizable for stylish silent film actresses such as Theda Bara Musidora and Nita Naldi.

The undead vampire dresses up to seduce and disguise herself. Consumption plays a double role in revealing anxieties regarding capitalism. In the stylish film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) starring fashion icon Tilda Swinton, this was played by costuming Tilda’s character in a mix of old and modern fabrics with an emphasis on loungewear.

Swinton’s shocking-blonde hair is complemented by yak wool to emphasize the non-human nature further. Vogue encouraged readers to “Get the Look.” Swinton represents a new kind of vampiress, one that is not dependent on her sexuality in order to stand out. She is stylish.

The Witch

This mythology is based on the fear that women might escape patriarchy through sexual independence. Stories of witches are both frightening and empowering.

The 1996 film The Craft was a powerful inspiration to a new generation of teenage girls. It explored teen suicide, depression, and racism, as well as sexual harassment, slut shaming, and bullying. Fairuza Balk portrays the iconic adolescent witch Nancy Downs. She is an angry, aggressive goth girl who has a difficult time with anyone outside of her small circle. Her appearance gets wilder as she gains power.

The films about witches show that there are alternatives to the dominant narratives on women’s beauty and bodies. A remake of Legacy will be released in the fall. The trailer features chokers, chains, dark lips, and short hair. These are all signs of the continuing relevance of punk, goth, and rebellious teen influences.

The Monster

It is a common myth that a woman’s beauty hides something evil. The fear of a woman’s beauty hiding something monstrous is an ancient trope.

The morality story of Wasp Woman (H.M.B., 1959) shows how beauty can also be a costly thing for the victim.

This story is based on the royal jelly in cosmetics. It’s still an ingredient used today.

Ms. Starlin, a character played by Susanna Cabot, is portrayed as a woman with an uncontrollable desire to look young. However, she ends up being transformed into a horrifying wasp-woman. This story is reminiscent of the joyous takedowns of women who had botched cosmetic surgeries.