When International Women in Horror Month comes around each February, the biases against women in the genre get aired out. This is a good thing. As infuriating as it is to confront the fact that bullshit still exists, it has to be exposed in order to heal. I’m thinking of a band-aid getting removed so the putrid wound beneath can get scabbed over. The idea that women cannot contribute to the horror genre definitely needs a nice, thick scab. Remember, try not to pick at it.
Now that I’ve ruined your next meal, allow me to elaborate. A resounding stereotype about women’s inclusion in the genre is that women aren’t violent enough to write horror. I’d kind of like to take this as a compliment. But to say women can’t write scary stuff because fewer of us are actual rapists and murderers (to paraphrase the old argument), is a misrepresentation of the genre and, if I may say so, quite insulting to male writers in the genre (as well as men in general). I mean, does anyone seriously believe that male horror writers are good at what they do because they are actual monsters? If they do, I’m surprised Stephen King and Clive Barker aren’t being hauled around in cages. Although, that may explain some odd-looking live cargo I saw at Bangor International Airport, a while back. Hmmm.
Anyhow, I sincerely hope and earnestly believe that most writers of horror, regardless of gender or sexual identity, are not writing about their own proclivity toward violence. Rather, horror writing gives us the space in which to talk about and understand the violence, predation, and injustices that we have observed or experienced in the world. Horror writers are some of the most adept artists around when it comes to peering into the dark mirror of avarice, greed, domination, guile, and emotional cruelty. They (we) most often do so not to revel in these attributes but to expose them. To call them out. To challenge them. Believe me, many women have experienced enough horror in the world around them to enable them to write some kickass material. A woman is raped in the United States about every nine seconds. A woman is beaten by her spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend about every fifteen seconds. Domestic violence affects a quarter of relationships in this country, both in heterosexual and LGBTQ communities. That’s just in the good ole’ US of A. That is some genuinely scary shit.
If you look at those numbers then every single one of us, whether man or woman (cis-gender or trans) knows someone who has experienced violence even if we haven’t ourselves. This is just one example of the horror we all have a need to expose, confront, and do art about. There is also racial injustice, socio-economic injustice, political and religious injustice–I could go on and on. For myself, the human domination of other animals and the ecosystem are also frequent topics for a horror story. I definitely don’t write about this stuff to revel in my love of carnage. Just the opposite, in fact. I often do it to try and purge some of the ugliness I can’t un-see, or to try and make a difference by communicating why I think we should all be disturbed by certain beliefs and actions.
When actors take on a role, they do not become the character. Not forever, at least. I don’t care how “method” they are. If they do go off the rails and lose their grip on their own reality, they won’t be in the arts (or on the streets) for very long. If this were an epidemic, we’d know it. But such things are barely even a blip on the tabloid radar. Same goes for writers. We write about situations and contexts from a distance. I think this is the case even when the work is partially autobiographical. Because I write a story about a woman and her mother, it doesn’t mean I am writing about me and my mother. Get it? When I write a story about a vengeful female spirit who routinely rips the heads off unsuspecting men, it does not mean I actually have a pile of craniums in my basement. They’re in the garage. Just kidding. It’s fiction, people. By the way, that story, “Catharine Hill,” is coming out in the Grinning Skull Press/Maine Horror Writers anthology, “Northern Frights,” in Spring 2017.
To say women are ill-equipped to write about horror is laughable. The real question is, can readers handle what women writers have to say about their take on violence, domination, and predation? Is there something about women’s words on this subject material that is turning readers off? What readers? Hetero-normative, white men? Other women, who are uncomfortable with being confronted by this material when it’s so close to home? I don’t know the answer. Just speculating. But to get to the real answers, we need more women writing in the genre, and being widely published and read. Not fewer.
When I say “women,” I mean a diverse spectrum of women in terms of race, class, religion, socio-economic status, sexual and gender identity, so on. So far, only those of us close to the center of cultural privilege (white, upper-class, heterosexual or cis-gender, etc.) are really making a dent. To keep track of our progress in literature and publishing, a great site is VIDA (women in literary arts), which tracks not only “women,” but intersectionality like race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, disability, etc. in the demographics of published women authors. Interesting stuff.
Back to the horror genre as what I believe is a powerful culturally trans-formative tool. “Creature horror” (monsters preying on humans) is a perfect story vehicle for teaching lessons about violence and oppression. When you think about it, the foundation of horror is nearly always “the golden rule.” How would you like to be treated, if you were in this situation? What does it feel like to be a helpless prey animal, pursued by someone or something stronger and faster than you, that sees you as a mindless and valueless piece of meat? What would it be like to be bred as a farm animal, or experimented on in a mad doctor’s lab? These are the questions horror and sci-fi writers routinely ask. They are important ones.
So, as we celebrate Women in Horror month, let’s scab the nasty old stereotype over, once and for all–until that dumbass bias gets brown and crusty and drops the hell off. Both women and men are fully equipped to write some scary shit. And that doesn’t mean we’re actual psychopaths. Seriously. Just don’t look in my garage.
Peace (and pieces)!