Musings & Meditations

Scream Queens and Beyond: Reflections on Women in Horror (Month)

Posted in Art & Society, Events, Gender, Horror, Movies, Sexuality and Culture, Women in Horror by Pam Keesey on February 7, 2010

It is women who love horror. Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out — and come back for more.

~ Bela Lugosi

I still remember watching my first horror film at the age of 5. I can’t remember exactly which film it was, although I’ve narrowed it down to two*. What I can tell you is that it scared the living daylights out of me, and I had nightmares for weeks. But I loved it. Even when I woke up in a cold sweat, there was an electricity, a joy, that I hadn’t experienced before. I was scared, yes, but I was safe. And excited. Thrilled, even. I started looking forward to the next one, then the next one, and then the next one.

I was hooked, and have been ever since.

Women in Horror Month

People are still surprised to discover my love of horror films. Even other women who love horror films.“There are so few of us,”one told me.“You’re the first other woman I’ve met who loves them as much as I do. I thought I was the only one.”

If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that we’re not alone. And when it comes to women who love horror, Women in Horror month has brought us to the fore and helped us to find each other like never before. Hannah Neurotica, editrix of the awesome feminist horror ’zine Ax Wound, proposed Women in Horror Recognition month to bring attention to women in horror.“We are writers, directors, producers, artists, eery musicians, creepy doll makers, FX artists. We are audience!”she writes.“If you are not deep in the underground with publications like Ax Wound, Pretty/Scary, Chainsaw Mafia, etc you might not even know women are out there doing these things.”

When I first started writing feminist perspectives on horror, there were a lot of women who were far from shy when it came to letting me know that I was a part of the problem, that embracing horror as an art form was tantamount to“perpetuating violence against women.”

Granted, there are many films where women are, as Hannah puts it,“bloody babes and soon-to-be gut piles in peril.”But there are plenty more where women are quick-witted, resourceful, self-reliant, resilient, and — perhaps above all else — brave.

In all the horror films that I have done, all of those women were strong women. I don’t feel I ever played the victim, although I was always in jeopardy.

~ Adrienne Barbeau

Scream queens. The genre is what it is, in part, because of women who made their careers screaming at the top of their lungs. These women were most assuredly women in peril. But they were not women who sat idly by while their men were out having adventures. No, they were in the midst of it all, deep in the fray.

In the beginning, there was Fay Wray. In film after film, Wray made good use of not only her looks and her talent, but also her lungs. And in doing so, she paved the way for the many scream queens who followed in her footsteps. While Fay Wray may have found herself in peril, she also played characters who thrived on adventure, whether as Joan Xavier in Doctor X, the young women who lures the maniacal killer to his eventual capture, or as Ann Darrow, the starving actress turned adventurer in King Kong, who not only endures the great ape’s attentions, but is also instrumental in bringing Kong, the eighth wonder, to New York.

Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein may not have had much choice in the matter when she was created by Victor Frankenstein to be the creature’s mate, but she certainly let her disdain for the idea be known through a blood-curdling (and now famous) scream.

Like the Bride before her, Julia Adams was less than thrilled with her paramour, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. While certainly in peril, she was also something more: a marine biologist, a strong (and strong-willed), intelligent, and resourceful professional woman at a time when women were expected to stay home and look after the house and children.

And these are just to name a very, very few of the now famous Queens of Scream.

Women aren’t always in front of the camera, screaming to high heaven. More and more, women are in behind the camera, too, as writers, directors, and more.

When I watched movies like The Goonies and E.T., it was boys having adventures. When I watched Nightmare on Elm Street, it was Nancy beating up Freddy. It was that simple.

~ Diablo Cody

With the release of Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body last year, it seems the mainstream press discovered that women love horror films. Michelle Orange of The New York Times (“Taking Back the Knife: Girls Gone Gory”), in grappling with the seemingly contradictory reality that“box office receipts show that women have an even bigger appetite for these films than men”comes to the conclusion that“[a]udiences love a woman who can take back the knife.”

“Some of us just like that stuff,” Diablo Cody says in response to Orange’s questions about women and horror. “We like suspense, we like to be scared, we like to have visceral reaction in the theater.”

In“Horror Films…And the Women Who Love Them!,”Entertainment Weekly’s Christine Spines also notes the ever increasing box office returns from women who love horror. Spines talks to women and men, producers, directors, and actresses, all of whom come back to the feminist theme of empowerment in horror.

“Horror films tap into the most primal fears,” says Orphan producer Susan Downey.“And when we put a woman through this mythological journey and have her come out at the end kicking ass, the guys get the eye candy they want and the girls get the sense of ’I can face my demon.’”

It may be that it’s only now that the studios are discovering women as something other than woman in peril in the horror genre. Bela Lugosi knew it long before Jennifer’s Body or even Nightmare on Elm Street graced the Silver Screen. Whether it’s looking at the roots of modern horror by way of the gothic novel — consider The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho, examples of a genre which was dismissed as the 18th century equivalent of“chick lit”— or placing Frankenstein — an extraordinary tale written by a young Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and the true progenitor of the modern horror story — at the very beginning of the Women in Horror timeline, the truth is women have been at the center of the horror genre since the beginning.

 


Postscript: If you’re interested in reading more about women in horror, check out Paula Guran’s (Dark Echo) article“What Women Want…in Horror.”


*I still remember the nightmares that movie inspired all those years ago: me running through the woods on a dark and moonless night, barely able to see more than a few feet around me. I’m being chased by something I can’t see, I can only hear, and then only faintly. Whatever is chasing me is invisible, and I never know how close it is until I think I’ve escaped, and suddenly see the invisible creature’s footprints on the ground, at which point I turn and run in the other direction.

When I first saw Forbidden Planet in my teens, I was convinced that it was that film that I saw, and it was the Creature from the Id that was after me. Convinced, that is, until I saw Curse of the Demon a few years later. My dreams were in black and white, much like Tourneur’s classic film, and my dream of running through the woods being chased by an unseen stalker much like the scene in which the demon — if that’s what it is — is in pursuit of Dana Andrews. I’ll never know for sure which of the two films it was, but I’m leaning toward Curse of the Demon. Either way, I was never the same again.

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  1. James P. Roberts said, on February 11, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    Nice thoughts, Pam. Of course, Women in Horror goes all the way back to Medea, if you want to get classical about it. Still, I do prefer a horror movie where the women are strong characters and not just some eye candy with an eventual date with your murder weapon of choice. Fay Wray is still one of my favorites and not just in King Kong, but also The Most Dangerous Game and The Terror in the Wax Museum.

    • Pam Keesey said, on February 11, 2010 at 7:10 pm

      Thanks so much, James! And of course, you’re right. Women in Horror goes all the way back to the day the concept of death entered the human consciousness. Horror as a genre, however….
      And so true, too, about The Most Dangerous Game and Terror in the Wax Museum. I mentioned both movies in an earlier draft. All four are essential in the Fay Wray oeuvre.


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