Yes, Girls Dig Horror, Too

Some things to note, in preface.

February has been named Women in Horror Recognition Month by Hannah Neurotica, editor of Ax Wound, the feminist horror zine.  As part of the activities surrounding this, a program of short horror films by women directors will be screened at Athens Cine Saturday night, which I plan to attend if I can overcome my natural recluse tendencies.

Also in February, SFX Magazine produced a special horror issue.  Among other features, they interviewed 34 screenwriters, directors, and novelists for a section entitled “Horror’s Hidden Treasures.”  In a bit of unintentional irony, given the month in which the issue appeared, they, uh, forgot to ask any women.

Maura McHugh discusses the omission on her blog and publishes her email exchange with editor Ian Berriman.  Mr. Berriman engages with her politely and explains some of the reasons for the omission.  Women are certainly less represented in screenwriting and directing in general, and even less visible in the horror genre.  Fair enough.  It’s more difficult to justify the complete absence of women novelists.  You wouldn’t need to look that far, given that writer Tanith Lee is the guest of honor at the World Horror Convention in Brighton, UK next month and that Sarah Langan is one of four nominees for this year’s Bram Stoker Award for best novel.  Caitlín R. Kiernan is hardly an unknown, either and her The Red Tree, which came out last year, is one of the best horror novels I’ve read in years.  Seriously, it has already ascended to Classic rank for me alongside such beloved favorites as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies, Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, and Fred Chappell’s Dagon.

I can sympathize with the editor’s frustration in feeling like he’s put a lot of work into this issue and now he’s being “dismissed” on the basis of this omission, although given earlier, recent Internet brouhahas over similar omissions, I’m kind of surprised he didn’t anticipate it.  But that’s neither here nor there.  I’m not crazy about the reactive nature of the Internet in responding to these sorts of things.  Tempers flare and awful things are said that people would never say to one another’s faces. On balance, as my dad (who grew up in the mountains of North Georgia) used to  say, “I’m agin’ it.”

What I want to talk about is this line from Ian Berriman’s response:

A female freelancer who specialises in horror journalism responded in similar terms: “It’s not your fault; you’re just reflecting the industry. There just aren’t that many female horror directors. There aren’t even that many female horror fans, come to that.

Emphasis mine.  That’s the comment that rankles.  This is a persistent myth, and one I loathe.  It’s simply not true.

There are lots and lots of women who do work in the horror genre in some capacity or another, and before we were creators, we were fans.  We still are fans.  And we still hear this kind of thing a lot, whether from people anxious to save us from our own collusion in a genre often seen as misogynistic to those fine specimens of manhood hailing from what I think of as the smelly boy’s locker room of horror who smugly declare that they “don’t read women writers” because “they just aren’t dark enough“!  (For that notion, I prescribe a reading of Natsuo Kirino’s Out.)  Then there are people who think women in horror means this new marketing category dubbed “paranormal romance” or “urban fantasy.”  Or, god forbid, they think Twilight.

So, in response to this assertion, that there just aren’t that many women horror fans, what I really want to do is write about my own, earliest memories of falling in love with horror.

This is a conversation I’ve had with a couple of (as it happens) male horror fans in my life: this early, primal attraction to the imagery of horror.  A memory of being very young, three or four or five, and being simultaneously drawn to and terrified by forbidden things glimpsed on book covers or television: monsters, haunted houses, blood and things that go bump in the night.

Later I remember picking up this Alfred Hitchcock anthology lying around the house.

It must have belonged to an older sibling or cousin.  (Orphaned books had a way of wending their way to our house.)  A.M. Burrage’s “The Waxwork,” a tale of an impoverished journalist who agrees to spend the night in a waxworks chamber of horrors, frightened me half to death, which didn’t stop me reading and rereading it.

But the most memorable scare of my young life came a little later than that, within the pages of the anthology up there at the top, Shudders.  I remember where I bought it, back in the day when drugstores carried racks of books.  I remember picking it up and reading this from the back: If this book feels cold when you first touch it, don’t be surprised.  Inside is a bone-chilling collection of stories by nine masters of terror.

And I said to myself: It does feel cold!   It does!

This book contained “The Waxwork” as well.  Ah, if only that had been the only horror that awaited me within.  No, there was much worse ahead, and two stories in particular which kept me awake for the entirety of the summer that I was eight years old.

First up: “The Monkey’s Paw.”  W.W. Jacobs.

I’m sure this story seems positively tame to anyone over the age of ten or so encountering it today.   Not so for my eight-year-old self then.  One of my bedroom windows, as it happened, looked out directly over the steps leading up to our front porch.  Do you know what that meant?

I spent an entire summer lying awake in horror, waiting for the sound of the dead son’s footsteps coming up those steps to knock on our front door.

Why on earth did I think the shambling remains of dead Herbert White would see fit to turn up at our front door in the middle of the night?  It made no sense; terror never does.  (It also made no sense to me that his parents were offered two hundred pounds in compensation; two hundreds pounds of what? I wondered, rereading that bit over and over in frustrated incomprehension, looking for clues that were not forthcoming.)  So there I lay, night after night, listening for a knock, so quiet and stealthy as to be scarcely audible, sounded on the front door.

Sometimes I thought I heard it.  After all, it was described as scarcely audible.  Was that it?  Could that be it?  Eventually, I’d pass out from sheer exhaustion and get some sleep.

If I managed to survive the shambling and knocking of Herbert White, there was something even worse to contend with.  Frank Belknap’s Long “Second Night Out.”

I hesitate to ruin this story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but once again, I suspect the power it held over eight-year-old me will not be quite the same for anyone reading this.  At any rate, it mattered no more to me that we were not on a ship than that Herbert White had no reason to visit me.  The only thing worse than the undead Herbert White was Frank Belknap’s Long killer undead monkey monster.  Don’t laugh.  The story contains a number of gruesome, hysterical descriptions of this horror, culminating in this final dreadful (in my imagination) manifestation:

For a moment, a moment only, I stared at the dark and repugnant visage, with its stary, corpse-white eyes, viscid and malignant, its flat simian nose, hairy ears, and thick black tongue that seemed to leap up at me from out of the mouth.  The face moved as I watched it, wriggled and squirmed revoltingly, while the head itself shifted its position, turning slightly to one side and revealing a profile even more bestial and gangrenous and unclean than the brunt of its countenance.

Every night, that summer of my eighth year, I lay awake in bed, trying not to look into the corners of the room, where, I was absolutely convinced this wrong, rotted monkey face would leer at me out of the dark.  Meanwhile, Herbert White would be knocking away and the front door.  And that would be all she wrote.

I’m amazed I survived to nine.

So why did I keep reading the stuff when it scared me so badly?

Well…it was awful, yeah, lying there sleepless, absolutely convinced I was going to die a horrible death, torn apart by the hands of a dead monkey.

But…it was also fun.

A few years later, Michael Myers* finally provided me with scares equivalent to the zombified Herbert White and the killer monkey–specifically, Michael Myers standing silent at the doorway wearing nothing but a bedsheet and, over it, the glasses of Lynda’s (P.J. Soles’s) dead boyfriend.  Another season of sleepless nights followed.  But that’s a topic for another post…

So, female and male fans alike: what are your earliest horror memories?

*Speaking of women screenwriters and horror, the late Debra Hill was the co-writer along with John Carpenter of the classic Halloween.

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7 thoughts on “Yes, Girls Dig Horror, Too

  1. Great post! Thank you.

    I would add to the women directors list Kathryn Bigelow, for Near Dark. She also co-wrote the script.

    My fascination with horror began at about the same age as yours. I remember reading several Edgar Allan Poe tales at age eight or nine, and then writing a series of gruesome stories which my parents found amusing. They grew up in poverty in rural Georgia, and they knew the value of reading and writing. So no matter how creepy my stories were, they encouraged me.

    There was an episode of “Night Gallery” called “Green Fingers” that haunted me for years. It starred Elsa Lanchester as a woman who refused to sell her home and surrounding garden to a real estate developer. She claimed that everything she planted grew. Frustrated and unable to buy her off, the developer sent a man to attack the woman, to scare her into selling. During the fight, the woman was maimed. When police came, they found a trail of blood to the garden.

    The night the woman died, the developer returned to look at the property. He was startled by a figure moving in the house, and discovered the woman in her chair, with roots and leaves attached to her. She had planted her fingers in the garden, and had grown back.

    That one stayed with me. Not the plot, but the woman covered in dirt and leaves, rocking in her chair. Years later, I was delighted by David Lynch’s short film “The Grandmother” because it was weird, and because it reminded me of “Green Fingers.”

    Happy horrors!

  2. The SFX editor said that he didn’t try to interview Bigelow because he wanted to focus on people whose entire careers were mostly focused on the horror genre. I’ve always been frustrated by the ending of that movie, by the way! Good stuff up to that point, though.

    After I wrote this entry I remember a bunch of other early horror memories, one of them being catching just a little bit of one of those TV shows purportedly about “real” paranormal encounters. I have no idea what show it was, but it was something about a woman waking up and seeing a face on the wall in front of her for several nights in a row. And then SHE DIED OF FRIGHT. That was the kicker for me. (If she died of fright, I’m not sure how they know that’s what took her out in the end, but there you go.) So, in addition to these other worries, I had a face on the wall that might cause me, too, to DIE FROM FRIGHT to worry about too.

    Isn’t it funny how an image like the one of the woman in dirt and leaves, rocking, can stay with you and haunt you for so long?

  3. jennifer

    This was fun to read, considering I have been a horror/ghost story fan since I was old enough to walk. I am also an artist, and my mother said that before she had ever even talked to me about death, I was in my high chair drawing cemeteries, cross sectional, so one could see the underground as well, complete with “smiling” corpses below the soil level.

    Saturday afternoons, Philadelphia’s UHF channels showed the “Dr Shock Show”, back to back horror films. I would sit in my red drum toybox, peering over the top edge, scaring myself silly over films like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and all those old Vincent Price classics. By first grade, I had devoured the entire Nancy Drew collection, and my first anthology was “Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Housefull” I also have the AH book you mention above. My mother was not necessarily a horror fan, but still would keep me up at night to watch some of the great old b&w’s with her, such as 1962’s “The Innocents”(based on the Turn of the Screw) and 1940’s “The Uninvited”- both excellent ghost story movies! I think that “The Innocents” is the movie responsible for me reading Henry James, and that was the beginning of my interest in the old classic ghost stories. And of course, there was Dark Shadows, and later all of the Stephen King early stuff… I also have many anthologies on true hauntings, and have had a few paranormal experiences myself – though nothing as dramatic as what you read about or see on tv.

    I was never a fan of Friday the 13th, or Night of the Living Dead, or any of those slasher flicks. My tastes were more low key, more along the lines of the gothic ghost story.The line you mentioned from the Monkeys Paw, about the knock..”so quiet and stealthy as to be scarcely audible..” well, that line is one of my favorites in all of horror literature, just those few words sum up so much delicious terror for me. I always wondered if anyone else out there felt the same. Odd, but I have really not met many people like me, with my tastes in horror.

    As for women and horror, I certainly disagree with the opinion that women are not dark enough and that is why you don’t see them represented in the genre. Possibly less female directors or writers of violent stuff, but I think that by our very nature, women are more in touch with the supernatural. Maybe in a different, more quiet way than men are…which I find a bit more creepy than the in-your-face gore that is so rampant today.

    And last, I am so excited to see my nieces, who are barely pushing 10 yrs old, also getting interested in horror. I hope it isn’t a fleeting interest, and am doing what I can to nurture it – trying to find movies that will thrill them without scarring them too much psychologically! For example, I think I will save The Exorcist for when they are thirty five! A few weeks ago I was excited to come across an old issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Housefull at a flea market (not sure what happened to my old copy) and picked it up for my 8 yr old niece …it will be great when she gets a little older and we can watch scary movies and discuss the stories together!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to share this, Jennifer, I enjoyed reading it! It sounds like we have really similar tastes in horror, and I’m glad you’re “indoctrinating” your nieces as well. Stop by again sometime (I do update this blog from time to time)…maybe I’ll post here on “The Hospice,” inspired by your other comment!

      1. jennifer

        you are very welcome, it was fun to share. I’ll check back from time to time, and please do post on The Hospice. Maybe the post will be searched out by other readers who can shed some light on the mystery.

        I have some new stories – well, old stories but new to me – to read that I am looking for online, stories I picked up thru yours and other blogs in the past few days. The last good short story I read online was Henry Kuttner’s
        “The Graveyard Rats”. Not sure if you have read that one, if not, look it up, it’s a treat… and beware if you are claustrophobic!

  4. Jessica

    Just a comment on Shudders, I got the book as a Christmas present when I was eight or nine and it scared the heck out if me, I read it over and over again, but could never go to sleep afterwards. The Whistling Room was scary as well, Carnicki remains one of my favorite horror heroes. Now I’m trying to track down a copy for my own kids to read.
    PS Andre Norton edited a few really scary Horror Anthologies I remember reading from my local Library, recommended.

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