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The Women Who Shaped the Horror Genre

Still from ‘Messiah of Evil’ directed by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, 1973.

We live in a world full of unacknowledged horror.

It’s one of the central paradoxes of American society: We are, by almost any reasonable standard, an unusually violent people. Just look at the statistics: An average of one school shooting a week since 2013, 136 mass shootings in 2016 alone, a gun-related murder rate that’s 25 times higher than other developed countries. All in all, Americans are seven times more likely to die from violence than people in other high-income nations.

Yet we are also, implausibly enough, a nation that considers talking about or looking at violence to be in bad taste. Politicians warn us, stone-faced, not to politicize any given massacre. Teenagers, newly preoccupied by their own mortality, are warned not to get morbid. Some steely, non-optional strain of optimism insists that we keep on believing everything will turn out all right, even when everything very clearly won’t.

This is particularly true for women, whose bodies and lives are ringed in by violence they aren’t meant to acknowledge. Again, a quick flip through the stats tells the story: One in three women will be physically abused by a romantic partner in her lifetime, an average of twenty women per minute and ten million women per year. One out of six women has survived an attempted or actual rape. Over a third of all female murder victims are killed by their male partners. As for that all-American gun violence, well, the bullets are hitting female targets. Most mass murders are just domestic violence incidents with a higher body count; in 57 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2014, the casualties included the killer’s partner and/or a member of his family (and those victims were women or children 81% of the time). A history of domestic violence is one of the best predictors of future spree killing.

These are just the big, obvious forms of violence; the kind with body counts and paper trails, the kind with names. Women can die from institutional neglect or culturally instilled self-hatred just as easily as we can from bullets. Yet because female horror typically happens in the places we’ve designated “domestic” and “private” — in romantic relationships, in the family, in the home — it’s often rendered unspeakable. We call it a private matter, a family disagreement, a crime of passion, bad sex, a bad date, a bad marriage, bad parenting; we call it anything other than what it is, which is violence. And, should the women who’ve survived it speak up, they’re more likely to be cast as unstable and vindictive than they are to find justice. What happens at home is meant to stay at home, and God help the woman who drags it out into the open air.

Mandatory optimism comes at a high cost — namely, the cost of silence, as anyone and everything that doesn’t fit the preferred narrative is systematically silenced and ignored. Yet no urgent truth can stay silent forever. In the face of all this repression, we’ve invented a literature of the unspeakable — an art form that ritually confronts, not just violence, but all those other ugly, bodily truths that we’re not supposed to talk about around the dinner table. We have horror: a genre pretty much entirely dedicated to birth, copulation, and death.

That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks, T.S. Eliot would tell us. Distinctively female facts, too; birthing and fucking both belong to that domestic, feminine, unspeakable sphere. Death is a bit more gender-neutral (“death is a woman,” Simone de Beauvoir insisted, though maybe just for the symmetry) but only a bit. Death belongs to the body, which has always been corrupted, feminine, female territory; men, after all, have claimed the mind for themselves, going off on their lofty flights of objectivity and genius and leaving the rest of us to play around in the mud with whatever they’ve left over.

Horror plays in the mud. It is exuberantly physical, just as interested in getting you to puke or jump or scream as it is in making you think. Horror is luxuriantly amateurish; its metaphors are so unsubtle a third-grader could parse them, its dialogue and plotting are frequently silly in the extreme, it is melodramatic and histrionic and all the other things women are accused of being whenever they raise their voices. Horror is all those things, and it still works; as a coded message, a scream bubbling up from under a smile, a violent society’s ritual confrontation with its own violence, horror can violate the rules of taste on every conceivable level and still maintain tremendous power.

So horror, you would think, is a natural haven for female artists. It’s a genre about trauma, centered around those domestic, private spaces where women’s trauma frequently plays out: the family, the home, the love affair, the body, safe places that can be irrevocably violated or turn sinister in an instant. Yet critics have, until recently, seen horror as a largely male phenomenon. It’s seen as disposable pulp for adolescent boys, hopped up on Mountain Dew and looking for something illicit. Even the critics who’ve taken horror the most seriously, and written the most thoughtful and empathetic work on it — Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws comes to mind — have tended to assume that the women on screen are just convenient fictions, and that the viewers of any given horror movie (not to mention the people actually making it) are male.

Not so fast. Women have always made horror; women, arguably, birthed horror in its current form. Women have also been, at several points throughout history, the primary consumers and fans of horror; the people reading all those lurid Gothic novels were not impressionable young men. This shouldn’t be surprising. Horror fiction can provide a way for women to explore their own vulnerabilities in patriarchy, and their own specifically female fears, without being caught and shamed for it; the big, operatic metaphors and willfully excessive nature of the genre can give women cover for big, operatic, excessive truths.

This is a series dedicated to women’s relationship with horror — and women’s relationship with fear. Each chapter will touch on a different female creator, and how she used the genre to give voice to unspeakable truths about female life: Mary Shelley’s dead births, Shirley Jackson’s suffocating domesticity, or the current renaissance of female art-horror directors and their fascination with women’s hunger. By sitting with their work — and the work they’ve influenced — we can come to understand something new about all the unacknowledged horror that surrounds female life. We can confront the unspeakable face of our own oppression, and live to tell the tale; we can use these dark stories to explore the hidden female face of the world.

You can read the next installment on Monday.

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