There's this strange, prevalent notion that horror belongs to men ... that it's the guys who like to watch the blood pour and the screams curdle while the women want nothing more than epic romances that rip out their insides in a much more figurative, gut-wrenching manner. It's an attitude that always seemed not only reductive, but downright silly. No matter how many women flock to 'Sex and the City' or lather themselves in cinematic bosom-heaving, there are many others who not only thrive on the thrills of horror, but who helped sculpt the genre into what it is today.
In the early days, I felt no gender divide in the horror world. A move from fairy tales to young adult horror seemed just as natural as diving into floofy princesses. Those tales were, after all, set in horrific and gruesome worlds of cannibalism and murder, thanks to those creepy Grimm folks. I, therefore, stormed straight from fairy tales to Fear Street.
Lois Duncan offered summers of fear [made into a TV movie by Wes Craven] and strangers with the same face, Richie Tankersley Cusick sought eerie 'April Fools' and L.J. Smith wrote of vampires, witches and psychic teens just as much as Christopher Pike sliced and diced the innocent while R. L. Stine cornered the horror market from 'Goosebumps' to 'Horror High.' Women were all over the creepy book world, and teen girls were obsessed with the supernatural well before Stephenie Meyer immortalized the Cullens. I devoured these books, so much so that my parental units forced me to read many boring, blood-free teen classics, lest I become a deranged and dangerous fiend.
With time, the divide revealed itself. The girls would leave the room when a horror movie was put into the VCR. Boys would blather on about the genre being a man's man sort of fare. No matter how much horror sped away from real life, or replicated it supernaturally, consensus stated that it was a only masculine interest, ignoring the long tradition that made the genre what it is today.
When it comes to reigning royalty in the horror world -- the stories that started it all -- there are two names that always come up. One is Bram Stoker and his story of 'Dracula,' the novel that created an insatiable sea of vampire fiends and supernatural sensuality. The other is Mary Shelley and the "first great modern horror novel," 'Frankenstein.' These worlds set up the horror genre, and defined the monsters who would rule it. They offered up competing notions of menace and sadness, both exploring the worlds of loneliness and despair. And it's quite lovely that with these two grandparents of the form, the man created the world of sensuous blood-sucking, while the woman created a world of body parts and human monstrosities ... but let's not get caught up in antiquated gender stereotypes.
Of course, the easiest ties between women and horror are found in literature. Shelley helped to form the genre while in more recent times, Anne Rice was the powerhouse who led vampires to what they are today. She's a female scribe who did write about romance, but through the filter of danger and murder, investigating how a villain could rest at the end of villainy's scale, or seem almost human with their compassion. Lestat dragged the vampire into a new world, teasing out every sexual innuendo and using vampirism to discuss any myriad of topics -- motherhood, religion, history, vigilanteism, art, sex and friendship... In her world, there's a vampire to fit every period, from the earliest days of civilization to modern rock stars. Vampiric fandom began to find its loud voice in the public consciousness.
[Sadly, the film 'Queen of the Damned' was a bastardization of the source material and fairly embarrassing for the form, but 'Interview with the Vampire' added verve to the genre, as Tom Cruise somehow managed to make Lestat come to life and Kirsten Dunst offered a child vampire we'll never forget.]
Jumping to cinema -- when women are behind the camera, it's a bit easier to forget their contributions, it being so easy to assume that all horror films are directed by men. Though discussions of women and film almost always link to feminism, the work of women behind the horror camera is just as diverse in scope and mentality as the so-called divide between women and men.
We have filmmakers like Mary Harron who took Bret Easton Ellis' 'American Psycho' and turned the male gaze on itself, the obsession with image resting solely with Patrick Bateman as he worshipped and obsessed about his body and every inconsequential detail of his life, while the women took on a much more laid back and casual demeanor. Though the film was bathed in blood, the horror really rested in the menace and hatred boiling inside Bateman. Christian Bale's performance made this switch of the gaze seem incredibly natural and suited to this character, who was torn between decorum and a vengeful taste for blood.
To flip to the exact opposite type of cinematic mentality, there's 1982's 'Slumber Party Massacre' -- an offering from writer/director Amy Holden Jones. The woman who wrote and directed 'Maid to Order' and penned 'Beethoven' and 'Mystic Pizza' offered classic, ridiculous and truly terrible horror with 'Massacre.' Feminist scribe Rita Mae Brown may have written it satirically, but it was played seriously. There's no feminism or female strength in this film. Jones revels in the male gaze, immediately showing breasts, and soon sending her female characters to the shower so that the camera could slowly pan down the female form and linger on the back-side. The male murderer even likes to kill his victims with a drill, the phallic and deadly piece offing every lonesome soul nearby. The film is goofy and exploitative, meant to revel in the period's genre norms rather than critique them.
Resting in the middle, there's 'Pet Sematary,' where Mary Lambert takes one of Stephen King's creepier novels and forms a great, scary horror flick. Resident horror geek Scott Weinberg once wrote of Lambert's treatment: "A true-blue bruise of a horror flick, packed with unsettling images, shocking demises, and a wonderfully apt sense of macabre humor. ...Director Mary Lambert ladles out the atmosphere in big, generous doses: Shock scares, nasty gore, creepy concepts... It's like a horror genre salad bar." It may not stand out as an epic classic, but it's the sort of solid offering whose power rests in the fact that it simply fits with the realm of horror, no different than the offerings from the male directors who surrounded her.
And thankfully, these women are only the tip of the iceberg: Our beloved Kathryn Bigelow moved from campy, ultra-hick vampires in 'Near Dark' to history-making Oscar wins. Antonia Bird offered disturbing cannibalism with 'Ravenous.' Jackie Kong offered up '80s flicks like 'The Being' and 'Blood Diner.' Director Rachel Talalay started her career with 'Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare' before heading to 'Tank Girl' and TV. Holly Dale used horror as a transition between documentaries and TV with 'Blood & Donuts.'
Let's face it, the above words are a mere sliver of the greater world -- the scream queens and would-be victims that fought back on the screen, the scribes like Shirley Jackson (Golden Globe-nominated horror classic 'The Haunting') who created the stories and producers like Nikki Wall ('Vaginal Holocaust') who helped make it all come to be.
Women are a part of horror, not only fueling it with shots of their breasts, but with their minds. The entire landscape would surely be different if Shelley hadn't given us Frankenstein; if Rice didn't use vampires to get over the turmoil in her own life; if Bigelow didn't start off with pulp fare. Now there are seas of female horror fiends. Bloggers like our Alison Nastasi, Twin filmmakers like Sylvia and Jen Soska, stunt-pros like Deneen Melody and lists of directorial talent.
And as we all -- women and men -- celebrate our inner horror fiend for Halloween, let's remember the ladies that helped make the genre the irresistible fright fest it is today.
And -- if you dare -- riddle me this: Why is it that so much movie horror magic rests with the Marys?