There’s the story we know: Knight in shining armor saves the damsel in distress. Sure, it works. Yet there’s something to be said for breaking the mold. Women can be tough-as-nails and highly formidable characters. They’re not always in distress and make for incredible heroes as well as menacing villains. Some of the best thrillers of all time feature female protagonists or antagonists—as the classic thrillers on this list prove.
In Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece, an unnamed female narrator is swept off her feet by wealthy widower Maxim de Winter. The narrator feels as if she's living a dream. Upon arriving at the estate, however, she finds herself thrust into the shadow of Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. As she feels herself fading in comparison, the housekeeper senses weakness and begins her own campaign of torment and manipulation. Can the protagonist withstand the mind games and expose the dark truth about Maxim's first wife?
The Silence of the Lambs
Clarice Starling, a young and rather lowly FBI agent, is shocked when she is assigned to the high-profile case of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Starling must interview Dr. Lecter, who is being housed at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to find out what he knows about the prolific killer Buffalo Bill. As Dr. Lecter toys with Starling’s mind, she realizes that he certainly knows the identity of the murderer. The Silence of the Lambs, which inspired the movie of the same name, is a thrilling, suspenseful story of psychological manipulation and murder.
The Eight is the story of Cat, an American computer engineer on assignment in Algeria in 1972, and Mireille, a nun at Montglane Abbey in 1790. The two women are connected by the Montglane Service–King Charlemagne’s chess set that holds the key to ultimate power. Mirelle’s task is to keep the pieces from falling into the wrong hands during the tumult of the French Revolution. Meanwhile, nearly 200 years in the future, Cat is sent on a mission to recover the missing pieces and has absolutely no idea of the potential consequences of her actions ...
Rosemary and her husband, Guy, are warned that the Bramford, a New York City apartment building, is a hub of paranormal activity. Yet they choose to ignore the warnings. Their neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castevet, are an eccentric elderly couple to whom Guy takes a shine. As her husband grows close to the unusual couple, Rosemary keeps her distance. When Rosemary gets pregnant, she becomes ill and the Castevets begin to pay special attention to her – maybe too much attention. This iconic story is most famous for its film adaptation, but the book is just as utterly unnerving and leans more on the thriller than horror side of the genre.
Ashley Collins has been chosen to lead an excursion to the subterranean labyrinth that lies in the depths of the earth. The labyrinth is a fantastic place filled with spectacular wonders and terrifying nightmares. The team is wary–their predecessors were never seen again after descending into the depths–but accept their assignment. Ashley and her team are soon hit with a shocking revelation: They are not alone. Beware, this potboiler might leave you with a fear of the underground.
The Mysteries of Udolpho
This Gothic romance could easily be considered one of the earliest thrillers. It remains Ann Radcliffe’s most beloved novel over 200 years later. The protagonist, Emily St. Aubert, is very close to her father, but after he passes away, the orphaned girl is sent to live with her aunt and uncle. When her uncle moves the family to a remote castle, Emily is devastated to be separated from Valancourt, the man she loves. Trapped in the spooky castle, far away from her love, Emily encounters strange phenomena and fears never escaping.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane tells the story of two sisters, Jane and Blanche Hudson, who live together in a decrepit Hollywood mansion. As a child, Blanche lived in the shadow of her little sister, a vaudeville star with the stage name Baby Jane. But when Blanche became a film star in her own right, she soon became far more successful than Baby Jane ever was. As the story opens, Jane is a bitter and delusional alcoholic caring for Blanche, who was disabled in a suspicious car accident. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and the movie it inspired are thrilling cult classics, with just a touch of horror.
Featured still from "The Silence of the Lambs" via Orion Pictures