“Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.”
— Alfred Hitchcock
To be a person of virtue, one must possess the characteristics of being morally just and kind-hearted. It’s easy to determine whether or not a person is virtuous based on interactions with them, but to be able to convey cinematically that a person is of virtue, it unfortunately must be expressed through the way an actor or actress looks and comes across.
In the world of the early horror films, filmmakers did not have the luxury of time to develop the personalities and backstories of secondary characters. Filmmakers were to generate tales of monsters to scare the masses, and quite honestly, couldn’t be bothered to find time to explain why the damsel in distress was worth anything other than eye candy and something for a monster to desire.
The color white has often been associated with purity with everything from the garments worn by angels to the virginal appearance of a wedding gown, but in the years of early horror films, female characters were almost always blonde. Now, before I continue any further, I need to address an issue that is bound to flood the comment section: unfortunately, classic horror films did not feature many characters of color, and especially did not feature them in leading roles. This is something that is ridiculously problematic and continues to be an issue even today. That being said, please note that this article is merely a dissection of the portrayal of blonde women in classic horror films. This IS NOT to say that the blondes were better actors or options, but merely artistic choices that have developed into tropes in films that are present even today.
Mary Philbin in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS played the angelic and blind darling, Dea, the beauty in this “Beauty and the Beast-esque” horror tale. While audiences remembered her as brunette Christine Daae in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, it was her role in TMWL that she is most remembered for. With porcelain skin and tresses that almost illuminated her appearance, Dea was the epitome of a pure, virtuous character. Without even speaking a single line, audiences knew that Dea was a sweet, loving, innocent, and admirable woman. The contrast of her snow-like features to the very dark shadows of Gwynplaine, the man with the forever smile was incredibly drastic, and audiences ate her up. It was this moment that classic horror fell in love with blondes, and created a trend that would follow for decades to come.
Only three years later would horror again return with an ethereal female lead. Helen Chandler (a natural blonde) played Mina, the romantic victim/interest of the monster who spawned a million movies, DRACULA. Mina was a character portrayed to be ultimately good, but also the ideal victim to Count Dracula. The man had a handful of wives but there was something about Mina Harker he found himself drawn to. Her blonde hair aided in letting audiences know not only that she was of pure regard, but that she was also the woman we were to pay attention to.
While Dracula was dressed in dark colors and wore darker makeup than most of the female actresses, Mina Harker was dressed in the color of moonlight to compliment the blonde hair adorning her head. Heather Chandler was a very well known stage and film actress at this point, but choosing her as the lead was no accident. Many may argue the fact Chandler was a blonde is merely coincidental, but DRACULA was the Universal monster movie that started the horror movie obsession and set the bar for the abundance of horror films created in the wake of its success. While THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is cited as the first Universal monster film, it was DRACULA that really got the ball rolling.
It has been said that once something happens three times, it is no longer coincidence, it’s preference. Witness Mae Clarke as the bride in FRANKENSTEIN. Although she changed her hair color and styles frequently over the years, her decision to go blonde in 1925 inspired Anita Loos to create a character named Lorelei Lee for her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Mae Clarke donned a white wedding gown and very light clothing styles for a majority of the film, but it is the scene in which Frankenstein’s monster invades her room in preparation for her wedding that really set the blonde damsel into motion. The extreme contrast of the elegant, white, blonde woman stranded alone with the very dark, gloomy, brunette monster immediately allowed audiences to fear for her survival. This isn’t solely based on the fact she was trapped with a monster, but her blonde and light attributes gave the impression that she was not only an at-risk civilian, but also that she was innocent and very vulnerable.
Quickly after FRANKENSTEIN, Boris Karloff donned monster makeup again as THE MUMMY. Now, this is where the female lead throws a wrench into the formula. The lead actress was Zita Johann, a brunette. However, THE MUMMY is much like THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME in that the setting is to be an “exotic” land. The 1920s-1930s was a time in which American audiences had a strong fear and sense of skepticism toward those “foreign” to their country. The All-American look was quickly becoming blonde haired, blue eyed women, and anything outside of this standard was viewed as different and therefore, feared.
Another important aspect to remember is that unlike Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and Gwynplaine: The Man Who Laughs, the Mummy was wrapped in very light garments. The female lead needs to contrast with this and the only real option was to have a brunette actress. Her hair color was used not to showcase her innocence or purity, but rather her “exoticism” and resemblance to an egyptian princess, which is insanely problematic and a grade-A example of whitewashing. The same could be said to the leading lady of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Kay Lawrence was beautiful, yes, but she was in no way a damsel character. She breaks the mold, because her character doesn’t fit the bill of the previous female leads in classic horror films. Not only that, but the film was taking place in the Amazon, an exotic location. (If we really must split hairs, the woman donned a white bathing suit for the most iconic scenes).
Much like their male counterparts, the female monster was nearly ALWAYS a dark featured, raven-haired beauty. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, and VAMPIRA emerged as horrifying female monsters armed with terrifying qualities and sex appeal that could turn any man into a puddle of what he once was. Sex appeal was always an important aspect of horror, but unlike the blonde counterparts that were generated as virgins sprinkled with angel dust, the brunette monster was a lustful demoness with the ability to completely take down any man with a bat of an eyelash and a swivel of a hip. Blondes definitely possessed sex appeal, but that’s all they had. There was no fear factor, just a pretty face to sympathize with.
It would appear that during the early days, the blonde female lead was the go-to for the damsel in distress archetype. One of the most important factors in this reasoning is due solely to lack of color in films. When you’re dealing with literally fifty shades of gray, filmmakers didn’t have much to choose from in terms of creating contrast. It wasn’t until Alfred Hitchcock emerged as the filmmaking casanova he was with his infamous Icy Blondes, that toe-headed ladies were seen as anything more than the romantic and innocent survival darlings. Hitchcock didn’t follow any of the formulaic horror standards and completely changed the look of the genre. Blondes were no longer the ideal candidate for the love interest, they were now the easiest targets for destruction.
Fast forward out of the days of black and white films and we are presented with a new type of blonde. The dumb blonde/slut/bitch character. Damsels in distress were often seen as weak characters, and their only value to society was their beautiful outer appearances. As the audience’s views of women and the way female characters were written evolved, so did the blonde archetype. The modern blonde woman only good for her looks now became sexually promiscuous, and the damsel unable to defend herself became a ditz. Being instilled in the early days of film as the preferred look, blondes also developed into self-righteous bitches, generating the “evil blondes”.
Even though they were all being massacred, blondes were still the preferred look. Brunettes had emerged as the virginal final girls, surviving the killer with their pure hearts. Blondes were still idolized and desired and no longer living in the sexually repressed times of the 1920s and 1930s, blondes were sexually lusted for and were the ones having sex. Obviously brunettes were having sex too, but final girls instilled the idea that blondes were better than brunettes because they could get laid…but they were also going to be the first to die. Obviously there are always exceptions to the rule, but this analysis is focusing on the status quo.
As the blonde female character changed, this in turn forced the brunette to turn as well. They’ve seemed to switch places, although the switching is sourced from their original portrayals of classic horror. Female roles have continued to adapt and evolve and thanks to BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, yes, even blondes can be badass monster killers. The blonde haired women of classic horror have helped to determine the way that blondes are portrayed in films today, and arguably, the way they are continually perceived in society.
This brings me to something called “missing white woman syndrome.” By definition, missing white woman syndrome is a phrase used by social scientists and media commentators to describe the extensive media coverage, especially in television, of missing person cases involving young, white, upper middle class women or girls. The common phrase “art imitating life” in this instance may be the inverse. We established early in our films that white women were worthy of protecting and saving, and this has been reflected in the way our news media covers real life horror. People of color are often neglected in favor of a missing white woman, and national outrage is frequently focused on the murders of white girls while hundreds of murders of women of color go unnoticed. THIS is what people are talking about when they say “Black Lives Matter.” BLM doesn’t say only black lives matter, it says “all lives matter, but we’re not paying attention to the lives that aren’t white.” And unfortunately, are films aren’t doing much to say otherwise. I’m not trying to say “horror films are responsible for the lack of fair news coverage,” but looking at the patterns and correlations of representation in our entertainment vs. media is an important way to learn how to break cycles and encourage a more inclusive approach to representation.
*Header Photo: Universal Pictures