Horror stories, at their heart, are subversive. They cross boundaries and violate society’s neat categories. People often are drawn to the warm and fuzzy emotions that something like a nice romantic comedy will evoke. Horror, by contrast, exposes our darker side, which includes our fears of each other and of ourselves. Why do we watch a horror movie if not to see someone slashed with a shiny knife, blood and guts spilling out? Why do we watch a creature feature focused on a monster run amok? We gasp and we shriek, and we may giggle just a little bit at how silly we are to be scared by it all. Still, it’s a strange pastime, watching death and destruction play out on the screen or on the page.
Maybe that’s why people seem resistant to the idea that women can like something as shocking as horror. If we are sugar and spice, shouldn’t we like something nice?
The truth is, though, that many women have made a career out of the nasty field of horror. More than that, they’ve become icons of the genre.
Women create really disturbing monsters, which makes sense. When women rebel against social norms of accepted behaviour, they are often labeled as monstrous or wild, just like the monsters in their stories. The original Goth girl Mary Shelley knew all about rebelling against her family and society. She wrote Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818 and, thus, gave us the iconic creature of Frankenstein’s monster, which has appeared in numerous incarnations over the years. Her book is also a remarkable meditation on the power of creation and the pain of loss. In 1976, Anne Rice doubled down on the decadent allures of the immortal vampire with her introduction of Lestat in Interview With A Vampire.
Shirley Jackson was the master of finding the horror lurking beneath everyday reality, and she was a deft architect of the uncanny home. Her masterpiece The Haunting Of Hill House (1959) has influenced every haunted house story since and spawned two films and a Netflix series.
Another trailblazing woman was actress, producer, and director Ida Lupino, who was the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone. She was also the only person — man or woman — in The Twilight Zone’s history to both act in and direct an episode. If that’s not enough, Lupino was the first woman to direct a film noir, with an all-male cast no less. Pretty iconic.
Horror icon Vampira, the stage name of actress Maila Nurmi, was television’s first horror host from 1954-1955. Wearing her trademark black fitted dress with its dangerously low-cut neckline, Vampira was both a new kind of Goth woman, but also a subversion of the perfect American housewife. She had “recipe” segments on her show, complete with poisonous cocktails, and a scream that could curdle blood. Cassandra Peterson followed in her footsteps just a few decades later when Elvira hosted a Los Angeles horror show in the early 1980s. What followed was nothing short of a horror dynasty, with books, movies, comic books, calendars, and more.
Where would the horror movie be without the “scream queens”? The slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s may seem like they weren’t exactly feminist works of art. After all, a lot of these films showcase a silent killer lumbering after a half-naked teenage girl, usually through the woods. The camera follows her, terror on her face and her T-shirt just barely hanging on. But these movies also introduce strong female characters, like Jamie Lee Curtis in the Halloween franchise, who always was ready to fight back, a model of strength and courage. She was a survivor when most didn’t make it out of their first scene. These women defied convention and tradition, like Linda Blair’s foul-mouthed, bed-writhing, demon-possessed heroine. Meek and mild-mannered these women were not.
These iconic women of horror remind us that there is not just one way to be a woman. So the next time someone says, “Why do you read such horrible stories? A nice girl like you shouldn’t read things like that,” remember these iconic women of horror.
Monster, She Wrote, is out now from Quirk Books. Get all the latest horror news with every issue of SciFiNow.