The Horror Film Pioneer You’ve Never Heard of
A conversation about animator & monster maker Milicent Patrick
From the age of four, Mallory O’Meara has loved horror movies.
“I’m a very anxious person, so when I was a kid and I saw my first monster on screen, which was actually the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence from Fantasia, it was the first experience I ever had where I was afraid of something that wasn’t real — which for a lot of kids might be scary, but, for me, was sort of a mental vacation,” she said. “It got me out of my own head, and it was the very first time a piece of art had ever made me think about it after I experienced it.”
O’Meara kept thinking about that monster and, as she grew older, sought out more from the genre.
“When I was a teenager, I didn’t have anybody else in my family that was into horror. I didn’t have a big sibling to show me the ropes, so I had to give myself a horror movie education. I started with all the classics, which are the Universal monster movies, of course, and I went through all of them. Creature from the Black Lagoon was the last one.”
Around that time, O’Meara saw a photo on a monster fan website with a caption that read: Milicent Patrick, Creature designer and illustrator.
“It was the very first time I had ever seen a woman working on a monster movie before. It was honestly the first time I had ever seen a woman working behind-the-scenes on any movie, so it was electrifying to me.
“It completely changed my life and it showed me that I had a place there, too.”
Discovering Milicent Patrick
It wasn’t until 2015 that O’Meara realized the world needed to know about Patrick’s life and work. She immediately got to work on her biography, The Lady from the Black Lagoon.
“Milicent Patrick was such a trailblazer in so many different types of art.”
While her role in 1950s monster movies is only a small part of her story, Patrick “had a big impact on the genre that is still being felt today, and that genre actually has a big impact on the world that we live in.”
To tell Patrick’s story, O’Meara said, “was a masochist’s dream.”
“There was nothing about her. It was kind of a nightmare, because you’re writing about someone who existed in the time before Facebook, before digitized records. Milicent Patrick was born in 1915. She was someone who had been purposely obfuscated by her boss at the Universal Monster Shop. But also, Milicent Patrick went under seven different names under the course of her lifetime.”
O’Meara searched libraries and newspaper archives, consulted historians and filmmakers, travelled all over “just looking for one little tiny crumb” of this incredible woman’s story.
She said, “Patrick would be worth writing about, and worthy of scholarship and of praise, even if she had just done Creature. But she did so much more, and I was really stunned by it. She was one of the first female animators at Disney. She grew up on Hearst Castle for the first 10 years of her life. She was a background actress, she was a model, she was an illustrator… It was like an embarrassment of riches when I started delving into it.”
“She was like the Forrest Gump of the 1950s.”
At the time, Patrick didn’t even have a Wikipedia page. O’Meara found a single article in a Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine from 1970, and even that piece was full of misinformation.
Women in Horror Today
O’Meara’s idea preceded the #MeToo movement and The Shape of Water, both of which underscore the importance of women like Millicent Patrick and their stories.
“There’s a really interesting misconception, especially behind the camera, that women are not capable of shooting, or editing, or working on violence or horror, when in reality, most of the horror genre is about women.”
“There are more female protagonists in horror than any other genre.”
Aside from spurring countless acting careers, O’Meara said, the horror genre also has many female fans.
“There are so many women interested in horror. We’ve always been here. It’s not really a matter of whether or not we’re here to be hired; it’s that we just need the opportunity.”
In that arena, she adds, “we still have a long way to go.”
O’Meara argues that more studios need to hire women, not just as directors, but as editors, cinematographers, production designers and special effects artists.
O’Meara herself has been a producer at Dark Dunes Productions for almost six years. She likens the role to writing this nonfiction book.
“As a producer, you are putting out 15,000 fires and keeping tons of balls in the air. You’re herding people and keeping track of tons of things, and that’s really what writing a nonfiction book is.”
“As a writer, you’re talking to tons and tons of people. You’re trying to collate a ton of information into one form that makes sense.”
A Newfound Respect for Horror
According to O’Meara, horror is not exactly having a rebirth, but, with the likes of Jordan Peele and Blumhouse films, the public is certainly coming to respect the genre in a new way.
“There’s this term — elevated horror — that is made fun of in the horror community because it’s not real. People have been making fantastic horror movies forever, and it’s really just whether or not the culture is ready to receive them. I think it started back when It Follows came out a few years ago, and followed very closely by The Babadook. We are seeing more of these beautiful, high-quality, character-focused films and people are starting to say, ‘Horror can be taken seriously now.’”
To her, the genre has always been an important part of our culture.
“You can track America’s fears through our horror movies, and the horror movies that are created during a time period.”
Because of their place on the fringe, O’Meara explained, “horror filmmakers actually get a lot more license to look at things very critically, to satire things, to be very political, whereas they might not get away with it in another genre.”
In 2018, the genre made it all the way to the Oscars, when Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Production Design.
“It was exciting for me as a producer, and as a consumer of horror, because watching a monster movie like that win so many awards was so heartening to show the world at large, ‘Hey, these stories are important. These stories are art.’”
A Case for Werewolves
O’Meara shared her list of favorite horror films, but not before explaining that she had a separate list of just werewolf movies. On the general list, there’s American Werewolf in London, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist and the original Wolf Man.
But then she explained her fascination with the werewolf genre specifically.
“I love werewolves because they are the embodiment of everything that we’re not allowed to talk about or look at in society. Werewolf stories are the Jekyll and Hyde stories.”
“They’re all about repression. They’re all about things that are taboo, so I find it very interesting when you set that loose, quite literally, on the silver screen—especially when they’re female-centric stories, like movies like When Animals Dream, or Ginger Snaps, that really explore puberty, menstruation, femininity and feminism, and I think werewolves are such a perfect metaphor for that.”
To Future Female Horror Filmmakers
O’Meara has a message for young women who want to pursue a career like hers—or like Milicent Patrick’s: “Don’t put up with the things that you think you need to put up with.”
“Back when I first started, I thought I had to deal with the way people talked down to me. I thought that it was just something I had to deal with, but you don’t. There are amazing people out there in the film community, and the horror film community, specifically. You just need to find your tribe. You need to reach out to other women. If you’re uncomfortable on a set, you don’t need to push through it. You can say something, or you can walk away.”
O’Meara is hopeful for the future of women in this space, already noting the positive changes in the industry. “We’re finally starting to see more women, more people of color and more queer people both in front of and behind the camera. That is what I think we should be praising.”
The Academy presented a screening of Creature from the Black Lagoon, followed by a conversation with Mallory O’Meara, at the Metrograph in New York in June. Get your tickets to our upcoming events here.