What Horror Taught Me About Being A Woman
My very first crush was Chris Sarandon in Fright Night. I was five.
“Why would you let her watch that?” my grandmother asked my mom, who shrugged and said it didn’t bother me. I wasn’t scared.
I’ve spent my entire life not being scared.
I’ve also spent my entire life apologizing and explaining.
When you’re a girl or a woman in a fandom or field dominated by men, you learn the delicate, sidestepping art of trying to justify why you like such “weird, gross stuff.” You learn that you’re going to get in trouble for the things you read while your male classmates are praised for “reading at all.” You learn how to laugh it off when guys want to physically maul you during scary movies because they expected you to shriek and curl into them instead of staring at the screen. You learn how to ignore the inane series of obscure questions when men want to prove you “aren’t a real fan.” You learn to not get your feelings hurt. You learn to go numb.
In the sixth grade I discovered Anne Rice. Our local librarian wouldn’t let me check the books out—“smut,” she said—and so I smuggled them under my t-shirt and read them late at night when the rest of the house was sleeping.
For the most part, I kept the books to myself. Until I read Memnoch, The Devil. Lestat, intent on not physically harming Dora—a woman so good, so pure, she practically radiates sunshine, puppies, and unicorn farts—feeds on her by ingesting her menstrual blood.
I remember twelve-year-old me placing the book face down, and silently mouthing holy shit. Because, for the first time ever, here was sex and the scandalous idea of periods tied together. Here was a woman feeding the ever terrifying, egotistical Lestat with her period blood.
I was fucking elated.
I took the book to school, and during my Language Arts class, read it aloud to my friends. Their faces were a mixture of shock and giggly, adolescent titillation.
Of course, my teacher overheard, and I spent a very awkward afternoon in front of my school’s principal and a counselor while they told me that young ladies shouldn’t read books like this. What could possibly make me enjoy something so disgusting?
For the first time, I felt shame for the thing I loved.
I spent the next ten years a closeted horror fan. I watched every movie I could and devoured every book I found, but I didn’t talk about it with anyone. None of my girlfriends liked scary stuff, and when I dragged my best friend to the truly terrible Queen of the Damned, I did it under the guise of ogling Stuart Townsend in leather pants and mesh shirts.
There were no other girls like me. Or, if there were, they were just as quiet as I was, operating under the unspoken rule that girls weren’t supposed to like horror.
I graduated to the literary. Fell in love with Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson and Joyce Carol Oates and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. These women forming a literary sisterhood of strangeness, and because of them, I decided to enroll in a Masters Program in Creative Writing.
Of course, genre writing was something you didn’t talk about. Horror was relegated to the trash heap along with Romance, and I wrote terrible, stilted stories where nothing happened and submitted them for workshops.
I got my degree and spent a year experimenting with my writing style before I finally sat down and imagined what it would be like to write without worrying about what people would think. To say “fuck it” and write the things that I liked. To not care what people thought about the ideas locked inside my head.
What came out was a horror story.
What came out was also terrible.
But it was a faltering step in the direction my life has always been leading.
Eventually my stories were published in a few places, and I thought to myself This is it! I’m a horror writer! I’ve finally found my place! My community!
And then the messages started. Usually through social media from men I didn’t know. Men who’d found me because I was a female, and I was a horror writer: a combination apparently as rare as a gilded asshole.
You’re too pretty to write that shit.
I like your stories. And how pretty you are, too!
Such a pretty girl. Get away from the occult ideas. It will destroy you. Just an opinion.
What the fuck is wrong with you that you think about stuff like that?
Each message carrying the same idea. If you are woman, you shouldn’t have these thoughts. And God help you if you express them.
Shut up. Be quiet. Be nice.
I kept writing. I published more. I met other female horror writers who’d had similar experiences.
We talk about the “best of” lists we see. The lists overflowing with male writers or with male writers exclusively. We listen to the arguments that there are more male than female horror writers. That’s why there are no female names on the list. We are quiet. We don’t engage in arguments. Or if we do, we’re called bitches and told that if we want on the lists, we should be better writers.
In February, we’re honored with “Women in Horror” month. Someone puts together a list of female writers you should be reading right now! And then, five months later, someone tweets out a request for followers to list their favorite female writers in the horror field, and people struggle.
And still, I write. I read horror novels and stories and watch scary movies, and I talk about them. I delete messages and engage in discussion and conversation. I promote my fellow female writers. Writers like Sarah Langan, Damien Angelica Walters, Livia Llewellyn, Cate Gardner, S.P. Miskowski, and my countless other sisters who are writing spooky.
Horror taught me to fight back.
Because, at the end of the horror movie, there’s always a girl still standing.
I’m going to be that girl.