The Contemporary History of British Women’s Horror

Gina Wisker

Gina Wisker

In focussing specifically on British women’s horror, it is useful to look at its origins and development up to the present day. It was after all a British woman writer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley who, it can be argued, began a whole genre of horror in the first place when she published ‘Frankenstein’ (1818). British women writers have often included horror elements in their work, most frequently in Gothic romances and lurking beneath melodrama. Another favourite mode is that of the ghost story. Women have always written ghost stories it seems, not least because of their familiar domestic setting. Haunted houses and returned rivals, domestic tyrants from beyond the grave echo the kinds of threatened constrained lives many women live in domestic contexts. Some ghosts represent the repressed violence and desire for retribution that the women feel themselves. Others are merely reinforcing a constrained status quo from beyond the grave.

Subversive figures are also recuperated. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s ‘Lolly Willowes’, (1993, [1926]) provides a model for the revaluation of the witch. Feared because an outsider, unconventional, often skilled with herbs and midwifery — women’s skills — witches were the on the rejected, feared margins of conformist society. Lolly, in refusing her role as spinster aunt, dependent (her money taken over by her brother) and caring, an adjunct to the family, seizes her independence and sets up home alone with a familiar/cat in a country village. Lolly recognises herself as a witch, her alternative powers nurtured by her environment and her new positive sense of identity. Warner has Satan as the gardener — a role Christ often assumes, and Lolly the follower chooses her own route happily. Djuna Barnes’ ‘Gothic Nightwood’ (1963 [1936] ) also uses elements of horror. The nightmare world which Robin Wood cruises defamiliarise familiar places and activities destabilise identity. Later in the century, Dame Daphne du Maurier explores the return of the repressed (‘Rebecca’, 1938) the horror undercutting the lies of romantic love, the force of male power, and body horror. In recognising that evil is part of ourselves she too sees that we construct an Other, a feared enemy, a figure of horror, when we need to confront ourselves, face up to contradictions: “The evil in us comes to the surface. Unless we recognise it in time, accept it, understand it, we are all destroyed, just as the people in ‘The Birds’ were destroyed” (Daphne du Maurier, letter to Maureen Baker-Minton July 4, 1957).

Her short stories, ‘The Birds’ and ‘Don’t look now’ undercut the myth of the strong father figure’s ability to cope with all forces. One cannot protect his family from the invasion of the family home by the birds (whose eye picking derives from ‘The Sandman’ tale). Another, seeking his dead daughter, is murdered by a masquerading dwarf — he too has failed in this male role as the solver of mysteries, bringer of order.

These are some of the quite recent British roots of women’s horror. There is currently an increase in contemporary women’s writing in the horror genre. We need to ask why horror has such increasing fascination and why work in this genre has been overlooked over the years. Certainly, horror is a transgressive outlet for examination of fears and desires, and it touches us all. The response now is acknowledging the pleasures and terrors of horror’s discoveries of secret, confined, threatening places and selves. Despite Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Dame Daphne du Maurier and others, horror could seem to be an unusual genre for women writers. Lisa Gracia Tuttle describes being amazed at a World Fantasy Convention where a panel of men discussed “why women don’t write horror”. Because conventional horror has largely been a male preserve.

She claims: “Women writers tend to be seen either as rare exceptions or redefined as something else-not horror but gothic; not horror but suspense; not horror but romance, or fantasy, or something unclassifiable but different.”

One of my arguments here, of course, turns this denigration into a positive. Women horror writers often transgress even the boundaries of genre, fiction, intermixing crime or romance or science fiction and horror. This is a subversive troubling of neat genres. The destabilising effects of such horror is, therefore, not merely in what happens to the characters, but also, what happens to the form. Feminist readers and audiences, not surprisingly, are likely to find little that is recognisable or positive about women and our potential in the horror genre because of it disempowering stereotypes of women as victims, hags or femmes fatales. Women in horror are passive and vulnerable — screaming, possibly devoured — like Vina Fay Wray, semi-clad in the arms of a gigantic King Kong. Alternatively, they are femmes fatales, dangerous beneath their beauty, or hags hiding beneath motherly kindness. Much conventional horror is predicated upon a need to disturb then reinforce a status quo, which privileges the everyday manifestations of patriarchy. Most terrifying is an event which threatens or breaches the boundaries of the home, the body or property. This latter includes the partner whose controlled loyalty, sexuality and dependability must be taken as given for our own sense of safety. Of ultimate terror in conventional horror is the figure of the transgressive sexually voracious woman who cannot be contained, the castratrix, a devouring embodiment of the “vagina dentata” myth. In this myth male fears of female power, sexual and otherwise, are transferred and transmuted into an image of a lovely but ultimately fatal female figure. Medusa/Eve, this is a snake-haired sensual monster of man’s own creation. Once she has attracted and overpowered the helpless male, drawn in by the ungovernable lusts incited in him, she destroys and devours him. What these characters/caricatures have in common is their sexuality and the male fears they represent.

Gendered perspectives inform traditional horror writing. One of the mainstays of conventional horror, the abject, is frequently a gender-related construction or projection. We might expect women writers of horror to work within the broad framework of conventional horror motifs and narrative, but to refuse a simplistic confirmation of the kinds of negative representations of women so often necessary to horror’s closure. Not only are women unlikely to collude with the representation of their own monstrosity, but they are unlikely to celebrate the return to a status quo which disempowers them. Often, indeed, they explore and then exorcise very different configurations of horror, investing different spaces, places and relations with the powers of horror. Looking at such differences, Lisa Gracia Tuttle notes: “Territory which to a man is emotionally neutral, may for a woman be mined with fear, and vice versa. For example: the short walk home from the bus-stop of an evening. And how to understand the awesome depths of loathing some men feel for the ordinary (female) human body? We all understand the language of fear, but men and women are raised speaking different dialects of that language.”

There is a surge of horror short stories exploring abuse in the family, or of the mother taking on the pain of the rest of the family, or of the destruction of the mother. Dame Daphne du Maurier utilises many of the techniques and narrative trajectories of conventional horror but her greater transgression and her unease trouble the ostensible closure of her narratives. In ‘The Birds’ (1952) the people will be destroyed, not rescued. In ‘Rebecca’ (1938) the haunting presence of the dead wife only seems to have been burned and destroyed in the conflagration which devoured Manderley: she lives on in her effects on the second marriage and the second Mrs de Winter. Her legacy permeates contemporary horror writing; the unease she leaves us with developed into fully-fledged refusals of closure, and celebratory transgressions. Contemporary women horror writers, American and British, such as Angela Olive Carter-Pearce, Suzy McKee Charnas, Anne Rice, Melanie Tem and others also concentrate on rewriting horror’s representations of women’s bodies, and on recognising and reinvesting the domestic setting and the lie of romance with horrific overtones. They too critique configurations of gender and power and in so doing reclaim horror’s impetus as a vehicle for insight, imaginative illumination, and social critique.

Contemporary women’s horror springs from the Gothic and is aligned with fantasy. It is the subversive granddaughter of eighteenth-century Gothic fiction, choosing terror, liberating repressed desire. It is widely recognised that fantasy, the Gothic and horror form the substance of the unconscious, of dreams, the repressed of society and social everyday normality. However, conventional Gothic stories tend to foreground male fears of female sexuality, hence all these dungeons and corridors. Chris Baldick (1993) emphasises male sexualised terrors and the locatedness of the Gothic: “for the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a sense of a fearful inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an effect of sickening descent into disintegration.”

“Gothic writers”, he notes “have borrowed the fables and nightmares of a past age in order to repudiate their authority”. Contemporary women Gothic and horror writers, however, work to critique the assumptions underlying male sexualised terrors. They reverse roles, celebrate women’s sexual energies. Sexual oppression and claustrophobic spaces are the stuff tackled by contemporary women’s horror, although different results often follow from those found in conventional horror.

“The structure of fantastic narratives is one founded upon contradictions” (Rosemary Jackson, 1981). Fantasy emphasises both desire and fear, exposes cultural secrets. The impossible is made possible, the safe dangerous, the hidden revealed, the repressed liberated. Fantasy hollows out the “real” and shows it is a construct. It consciously enables transgression.

Conventional horror, fantasy’s darker side, brings hidden terrors to light our worst nightmares are enacted: disempowerment, disablement, dismemberment, dehumanisation, reification. People turn into animals. Floors, walls, homes, family, friends, law, order and social stabilities dissolve, are exposed as flawed, undependable illusions.

And women, seen as owned objects of sexual and domestic comfort, are represented as deadly and deceptive, Other. Horror tends to the spatialise woman as absence or lack. However, radical women horror writers critically confront such an abject script, refusing horror’s conventional closure and the restoration of an order which, in continuing to configure woman as Other, returns her to social subordination. They even celebrate the disorder unleashed, and reinforce the power of what has been represented, as absence and lack.

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