Contemporary British women horror writers critically engage with and develop a range of familiar settings and concerns, familiar, that is, in more conventional, male authorised horror. But they are scripting roles for women and the more radical amongst them frequently refuse the disempowerment, which consistently configures women as victims, femmes fatales, hags, and whores in such conventional horror. Additionally, they tend to investigate the spaces, settings, the representations, roles and the myths which restrict and abject women.
Many are writing formally familiar horror tales: they revive the ghost story, beloved of male and female writers alike, and emphasise its gendered significances. They revitalise mythic figures — Medusa, witches, female vampires. However, these women writers are more likely to rescript the abject scripts usually allotted such conventional figures, devaluing and undercutting the cultural assumptions which construct and constrain them. Even more radically, they often refuse the “horror turn” that neat closure which shuts down the subversive energies and restores order at the end of a horror fiction. In this they not only disturb the familiar figures, they also, by troubling the conventional narrative structure, question the values which use it as a vehicle. For many ironies, for others the oxymoron, and for others, the combining of genres enable such a subversive move.
Each subversion and yoking of opposites destabilises the complacency of conventional horror which itself only terrifies and disgusts in order eventually, to overpower and restore the status quo, a status quo which is itself predicated upon largely masculine values, and a social imbalance of power between the sexes. Mark Jancovitch comments on this horror “turn” or returns to order: “It is claimed that the pleasure offered by the genre is based on the process of narrative closure in which the horrifying or monstrous is destroyed or contained. The structures of horror narratives are said to set out from a situation of order, move through a period of disorder caused by the eruption of horrifying or monstrous forces, and finally reach a point of closure and completion in which disruptive, monstrous elements are contained or destroyed and the original order is re-established.”
Horror is a branch of the Gothic, more violent, more excessive perhaps in its ability to evoke fear and disgust. It makes Gothic conventions dangerous, the split selves destructive, the exposing of the contradictions in convention highly physically and mentally threatening. It lurks most happily in the familiar, in the family home, the seemingly safe relationships, the stability of identity and comfort with which we surround ourselves. Sigmund Freud’s essay (1919) ‘The Uncanny’ pointed out horror’s defamiliarising the familiar, threatening us where we feel most secure. It exposes dread, “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” Stephen Edwin King spatialises and familiarises horror, comparing its success with the way it intrudes upon the house of the self: the good horror tale will dance its way to the centre of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no one but you knew of.”
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock suggests that we should “put horror back where it belongs, in the family”. Power, oppression, silencing, repression, are the stuff of horror, deriving from our essential fears of being forced, denied, controlled, displaced out of ourselves, into constraining roles and constricting places, unable to resist or refuse. Mark Jancovitch also claims: “Throughout its history, horror has been concerned with forces that threaten individuals, groups, or even ‘life as we know it’. It has been concerned with the workings of power and repression in relationship to the body, the personality, or to social life in general.”
Horror often threatens or enacts violence. If it opens the door to expose that of which we are afraid, this is the door to a hidden room we would rather ignore. What is hidden, and suppressed in what is familiar, is most horrifying. Subversive, horror is frequently spatialised and quite literally looks beneath the surface, into the cracks, below the floorboards, or up in the attic, in the corners. American Cleo Virginia Andrews incarcerates children in an attic (‘Flowers in the Attic,’ 198 ), Caitlín R. Kiernan has spiders creeping up from hell in the cellar (Silk, 199 ), invading the body and transmuting or entwining it. What results is a projection from the familiar, something bursts or creeps out, something lurking, monstrous, something repressed bodied forth in a demon spirit, ghost or monster. Laplanche and Pontalis describe this outward projection as: “qualities, feelings, wishes and objects which the subject refuses to recognise or rejects in himself […] expelled from the self and located in another person or thing.”
What can also emerge in horror is an alternative self, the animal beneath the skin, the werewolf, or vampire, the lurking death in us all, the vampire again, mummy, zombie. We might be terrified of that which emerges from the cracks and fissures, from beneath the skin, but equally, what is subversive, questions cultural conventions, and can offer alternatives. It is in this liminal position that horror works its contradictory magic: it exposes and undercuts, and through these cracks emerge many other readings, other possibilities. It is in the seizing of the radical wealth of other constructions and readings that much contemporary women’s horror flourishes. It erodes cultural barriers and differences which position some as excluded to the margins and destroyed, and others centrally positioned and celebrated, which clearly defines that which is clean and unclean, good/bad, black/white, which actually acts critically as Rosemary Jackson indicates: “Far from constructing this attempt at erosion as a mere embrace of barbarism or chaos, it is possible to discern it as a desire for something excluded from cultural order — more specifically, for all that is in opposition to the capitalist and patriarchal order which has been dominant in Western society over the last two centuries.”
Confronting that which horrifies and disgusts and recognising ourselves in it, is a way of overcoming our fears and owning up to them, admitting to their room in our own lives, as parts of ourselves. Much women’s horror, by refusing the closure and punishment, the restoration of order, insists on this recognition of ourselves in the construction of that which has conventionally been seen as Other, as disgusting and rejected, as abject.
In her work on horror and abjection, Julia Kristeva (1982) defines the abject as those substances, which the body needs to reject, make other, in order for the subject to be able to recognise itself, literally have space for itself. And the first object of rejected abjection is the mother, prefiguring the extradition of women from the predominantly male social territory, to the borders of the imagination, either idealised or demonised, but definitely “other” to be restrained or destroyed. In ‘The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection’ (1982) Julia Kristeva argues: “Fear of the archaic mother proves essentially to be a fear of her generative power. It is this power, dreaded, that patrilineal filiation is charged with subduing.”
The mother and sexually aware woman are terrifying; and women’s bodies are a focus of fear and loathing.
Victor Burgin (1990) goes on to clarify. Otherness produces idealisation, rejection and marginalisation: “This peripheral and ambivalent position allocated to the woman, says Julia Kristeva, has led to that familiar division of the field of representations in which women are viewed as either saintly or demonic-according to whether they are seen as bringing the darkness, or as keeping it out.”
Luce Irigaray (1977) has a very different sense of the psychic from that of Julia Kristeva. She argues of the relation between women and what is considered Other that woman ultimately represents death: “In this proliferating desire of the same, death will be the only representative of an outside, of a heterogeneity, of another: women will assume the function of representing death.”
However, this recognition of the Other, the impulse to abject can be turned to positive effect in contemporary women’s horror. Recognising that the Other is our other half, that we offload fears of death onto this Other, this monstrous female construction can liberate. Celebrating our Other is empowering. It can undercut binary oppositions by showing they are twin sides of the same: yoked. For some writers, this yoking of opposites is actually enacted through the language, as in Angela Olive Carter-Pearce and the American Billy Martin. Theirs is often confrontational, oppositional, and carnivalesque contemporary women’s horror. In that work, horror provides an entertaining and provocative vehicle for interrogating gender representations and assumptions, as well as other configurations of power.