The quaint notion of being ''ladylike'' is about as relevant to today's teens as boom boxes and cassettes. Over the next few months, we'll see a Halloween sequel in which Scout Taylor-Compton faces off against the masked murderer Michael Myers; Zombieland, which finds Abigail Breslin and Emma Stone fending off the undead; Antichrist, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg battles her own demons; and, of course, Jennifer's Body. ''Women have become more comfortable being anyone they want to be,'' says director Sam Raimi, who recently returned to his horror roots with Drag Me to Hell. ''Maybe women always liked horror films, but it may have been a little bit unacceptable in the past because they were considered a boyish guilty pleasure.''
The truth is that if you look beneath horror's gory surface you'll often find a stealth empowerment message, thanks to some canny ingenue who claws her way out of danger. ''The appeal is in watching women in jeopardy and, most importantly, fighting back,'' says Bob Weinstein, who, as the head of Dimension Films, has overseen a slew of horror franchises, including the Halloween reboots and the Scream movies. ''When I first met with Clive Barker on Hellraiser, I'm going, 'It's a guy audience, heavy-duty, rock & roll.' And he goes, 'Bob, it's all about women. You have a female at the center of the story that's what works.''' One of the most consistent tropes of the genre is the character whom filmmakers call ''the final girl'' the survivor. ''Horror films tap into the most primal fears,'' says Orphan producer Susan Downey. ''And when we put a woman through this mythological journey and have her come out at the end kicking ass, the guys get the eye candy they want and the girls get the sense of 'I can face my demon.'''
All this may sound conveniently feminist the intellectualizing of a violent genre. And frankly, it should be noted that just as young male moviegoers seem addicted to seeing stuff blow up, young females in the audience have a predilection of their own: They like to cuddle. Horror movies give teen girls in particular an excuse to inch a little closer to their beloved, as Hollywood learned years ago when The Ring and The Grudge grossed $129 million and $110 million, respectively. ''Both movies were really scary and PG-13, which is the age of those early first dates,'' says Mandate Pictures president Nathan Kahane, who exec-produced the Grudge series and Drag Me to Hell. ''Girls are driving the ideas for those early dates. There aren't that many social opportunities to be in the dark holding hands, and that's what the PG-13 horror film offers.''
As female filmmakers buoyed by female audiences keep making scary movies, the genre will morph in important ways. ''When a woman has sex in a horror movie, forget about it, she's going to die,'' Cody says of writing Jennifer's Body. ''The protagonist is always virginal, and I wanted to put a stop to that.'' Males in the audience likely won't object to more sex. And Cody, for one, has no intention of scaling back on blood: ''If I do another horror movie which I want to I need to write a lot more kill scenes.''