WiHM 2023: The Women Who Made Me Love Horror
WiHM 2023: The Women Who Made Me Love Horror
by: Victoria Audley
There’s a quote from Bela Lugosi I always think of regarding women and horror: “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.” Horror is, of course, for everyone, but I think something about this quote really captures the experience of being a woman who both loves and creates horror. To me personally, my love of horror is wrapped up in my identity as a woman — not solely due to the agonies, though that’s certainly a part, but the joys as well. The visceral victories, the quiet terrors, the observations I wish I hadn’t made, the truths it’s my burden to know: horror reflects these, celebrates them, tears them into bite-sized pieces, and rebuilds them into houses haunted by my own ghosts.
Other women have taught me to love horror, more than anyone else. Whether on the page or writing it, in front of a camera or in personal conversation, it’s the stories women tell, the stories shared to explain an experience or find understanding on common ground that have shaped my love and use of horror. For this article, I wanted to go back to my roots — to the most formative influences in my life that brought me into the genre. To that end, I couldn’t start with anyone else but…
If anything rather than anyone got me into horror, it was, in fact, fairytales. I grew up devouring every fairytale I could get my hands on, flipping through the gorgeous and haunting illustrations in my mother’s collections of folklore and mythology, of sharp-toothed fairies and red-eyed ghosts hiding in the shadows between trees. I was of the age that Disney’s The Little Mermaid was on repeat, and as enchanted as I was with the happily-ever-after, I vividly remember the first time I read Hans Christian Andersen’s story. Each step the mermaid took on human legs felt as if it were on knives, and her pain did not ease. When she took her own life rather than kill the prince, I was breathless. I was shattered, I was captivated, and I immediately wanted more. There’s a raw, brutal honesty to the stories in folklore and fairytales: the beauty in the tragedy of life, the bruised and bloodied hope that presses us onward.
When I first read The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter’s collection of fairytale-inspired short stories, it was the horror that fascinated me once again. Her stories are beautiful like the edge of a blade: sharp and shining. The fairytale heroines turned final girls in her retellings, who fight and laugh and murder their way through forests and castles, stayed close to my heart. My own gothic retelling of Hansel and Gretel focusing on the witch (“The Wind So Mild” in Quill & Crow Publishing House’s Grimm & Dread anthology) was heavily inspired by my love of Carter-esque retellings. Through her work, I was taught that horror exists in every genre, in every realm of stories, in every corner of life. It’s in the magical as well as the mundane, the beautiful and the grotesque.
You can’t have a list like this without mentioning Mary Shelley, but I thought it was just too obvious to name her outright. For me, it also makes sense to come at Shelley from another angle: she of the iconic portrayal of the Bride of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester.
Though the titular character of the 1935 film, the Bride has very little screen time. What screen time she has is largely spent screaming. It is that scream, however, that caught my attention. That scream encapsulates everything about her existence within her story: the inexpressible horrors of undeath, of being created for only one purpose, of her own thoughts and agency being denied in service of that purpose, of being thought of as no more than an object taking up an assigned space, of not being respected or valued beyond what service she can do for someone else. We could explain in excruciating detail how these things affect us even now, how our experiences reflect these anxieties and terrors, how exhausted we are to feel like this day after day. Or we could just scream.
There’s a reason we laud ‘scream queens’ in horror; to express not only fear but truths about life understood through shared experience in a wordless scream is no small feat. Watching a whole group of women on the floor screaming in Midsommar or Samara Weaving’s tropical bird-esque shrieks in Ready or Not is indescribably cathartic. We recognise our own horrors in their despair and feel our own unburdening in their release. Shelley’s metaphorical scream was quite the opposite of wordless, but the emotions of her work are expressed so perfectly in Lanchester’s depiction of the Bride.
They may be creepy and kooky, but is The Addams Family horror? Well, not exactly, but I believe they — and Morticia in particular — played a big part in the development of my love of horror. I managed to be at just the right age during the early 90s Addams renaissance to get fully obsessed with it. Unlike most girls my age, it wasn’t Wednesday I felt a kinship with, but Morticia. Her vampiric beauty was aspirational, as was her relationship with someone who absolutely adored her, but although Anjelica Huston’s depiction of Morticia was why I got into The Addams Family, it was Carolyn Jones’s Morticia that played a bigger part in my love of horror.
While fun in its own way, the cool 90s detachment and deadpan sarcasm isn’t the name of the game in the 1960s sitcom iteration of the Addamses. The defining characteristic of the 60s Addamses, rather, is joy. They’re frequently ecstatic over the beauty of thunderstorms, graveyards, and bats, and Morticia famously remarks that “black is such a happy colour.” They don’t glorify misery, but rather find their happiness in the dark and macabre.
Morticia’s love and enthusiasm for everything mysterious and spooky certainly rubbed off on me. What I learned through her was how to appreciate the beauty inherent to horror, and how to sometimes shed the seriousness of the genre I spoke of with Lanchester and Shelley. There’s a time and place for horror as a site of catharsis and understanding for the terrible and gruesome, but there’s also a time and place for horror as a work of art, a site of comfort and love, of community and elation, like it is for Morticia and the Addamses.
A more recent influence on my love of horror, but of no less significance, is Jewelle Gomez. What has always drawn me to horror is seeing pieces of my own experience in it: my love of fairytales in Carter’s work, the frustrations of womanhood in Shelley’s writing and Lanchester’s portrayal of it, the joy in the macabre of Morticia Addams. I didn’t recognise myself as a queer woman until I was an adult, and didn’t seek out queer literature before then, either. It’s been an interwoven experience, understanding myself and seeing myself in the works I read and watch and listen to, and The Gilda Stories was a profound part of that.
In her 2015 foreword to the book (originally published in 1991), Gomez writes of connecting vampires with marginalised communities and the pushback she received on the topic. Though the queer connection to vampires is much more widespread now, there was — and, in some cases, still is — a fear that the message sent is one of denigration and negativity. What Gomez’s work does is not only embrace monstrosity but redefine it. She takes that which sets us apart — for Gilda, being both Black and lesbian — and acknowledges that these differences have been seen as faults and evils in us, but they are, in fact, our strengths. These strengths we have in common are how we build our community. Creatures of horror we may be, but what a beautiful thing that is to be. “We take blood,” she writes, “not life, and leave something in exchange…That is, we must learn how to break through the surface, find the deep dangerous place where blood flows without hurting one another, and share all that we know and love in order to survive.”
Where before I saw in horror my experience, in Gomez’s work I saw myself. This article is a collection of women who have influenced my love of horror; Gomez helped me see love within horror. And as I am an avowed lover of love, I can’t sing any higher praise.
As a woman who writes short horror fiction, it practically goes without saying that Shirley Jackson’s work is incredibly important to me. Like many people, my first introduction to her was reading “The Lottery” in school, and from there I sought out her other work. What speaks to me about her work in particular is her marvellous economy of words — how few words she uses to such monumental effect. She terrifies through multi-layered meaning, and incisive and careful choices. The efficiency of her horror is unmatched, as evidenced by her lasting influence. I still turn over the opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House in my mind all the time — it is, word-for-word, absolutely perfect.
More than anyone else, I think Shirley Jackson is the person that made me want to write horror. Everyone on this list is part of why I love it, but Shirley Jackson made me want to create it. Her work sets a kind of challenge to be as terrifying in as few words, to set a scene as effectively, to shock and awe with such unassuming sharpness.
The world of horror is an unspeakably wide one, and every day women push the boundaries of it further. It’s a genre reimagined by everyone who engages with it, reflecting what influences them and the experiences they’ve had, and creating new meaning from images that shock, thrill, disgust, and amaze. What it means to work with fear — what it means to live in it, and experience it as a woman — is no less than reshaping the world we inhabit: interrogating and redefining what controls us, and what we control in turn. As a woman in horror, I’m deeply indebted to all the women who came before me and all the women whose work I get to experience in present tense. I know there are women in horror whose work has yet to find me, and may still shape my love of it in ways I can’t anticipate. I’ll be here when they do, because I continue to — referencing the quote with which I opened this article — shudder and cling and cry out, and come back for more.
- About the Author
- Latest Posts
Victoria Audley is a folklorist, museum educator, and ghost escaped from a gothic novel, currently haunting the coast of north east England. When she isn’t writing, she plays too much D&D and befriends the neighbourhood crows. Her work can be found in anthologies by Ghost Orchid Press, Quill & Crow Publishing House, and Fabled Collective. https://bio.link/vcaudley