The Gorier the Better
by Jessica McHugh
First, a disclaimer. There might be thousands of female horror writers who can rattle off facts and figures and speak on this particular issue with well-deserved authority. I, on the other hand, didn’t recognize this issue as an issue for most of my life. I’m still in the process of educating myself about my frightening feminist forebears because, unlike many of my inky cohorts, I don’t have an MFA…or any degree, actually. I owe my love and talent for storytelling to the rabid consumption of books, movies, tv, plays, and running around the house pretending to be The Last Unicorn whenever my family left me alone. I also pretended there were monsters beating down my door, and I was the last line of defense for our poor, defenseless cats. And the things that chased me when it was my turn to drag the trashcans to the curb—well, I won’t burden you with their mutable but malicious breeds.
Looking back, it seems horror has always been in my life. Every Saturday in the late 80s/early 90s, I watched the featured horror movie on Nightmare Theater, and I was lucky enough to grow up in an era when a lot of kids movies had dark themes and unapologetic horror scenes. (I’m looking at you, Don Bluth and Rankin/Bass, and thank you.) I read the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books religiously— tortured myself with the illustrations, more accurately—and I looked forward to October every year in elementary school because that’s when teachers brought out the ghost story collections. Despite being embarrassingly easy to scare, I couldn’t get enough.
By sixth grade, I was clearly doomed. I’d graduated to RL Stine’s Fear Street series and the novels of Stephen King, and horror had penetrated my creative works in and outside of school. I’d received some discouraging notes from teachers to this effect all the way back to fourth grade, suggesting I avoid gory topics. This perplexed me. Why allow students to read scary stories and then chastise them for crafting their own?
I continued reading and writing horror as I aged, but I must’ve been so lost in my own bloody little worlds that I didn’t notice the disparity between the genders of my favorite authors. While I read several novels, mostly series, by women, the short horror I read was overwhelmingly male. But I still didn’t see the issue. It wasn’t intentional—just one of those things.
It was not, I now realize, just one of those things.
A year ago, I became a creative writing instructor for kids 8-18. It didn’t occur to me to limit what kind of genres, themes, or characters they could tackle, so I was surprised when the kids grinned like my easygoing attitude was an act of rebellion. The young women, especially, confessed how often they’d been steered toward “nicer” topics by teachers and parents, even while their male peers and brothers were allowed to write stories of war and slaughter.
It made me wonder: had that happened to me? When I was in fourth grade, writing a story about a serial killer on pumpkin-shaped construction paper, had the teacher tried to silence my feelings about murder and death because I was female?
I won’t ever know for sure, but if that was the case, I’m thankful as fuck it was an enormous failure. I’m dismayed that adults still try to limit what topics female writers can tackle, but I’m happy to see that the publishing industry has evolved for better. In the eight years I’ve been in this business, I’ve seen so many presses actively diversify their catalogs and TOCs. I’ve seen readers break out of their comfort zones to explore the voices of different genders and cultures, as well as authors educating themselves on how to properly write strong female characters. I no longer believe the horror industry is a sexist one. Are there rotten apples among us? Sure. But the good guys far outweigh the bad, in my opinion. There are no men trying to keep women out of horror. There are only assholes with bad taste.
We still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to boosting the signal on women of color in the horror industry and nurturing the voices of the next generation, but every bit from every horror lover out there can make a difference. Now more than ever, we need to encourage these artists to be confident and tell their stories, no matter how gory.
The gorier the better, if you ask me.
Jessica McHugh is a novelist, poet, and internationally produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty books published in eight years, including her bizarro romp, “The Green Kangaroos,” her Post Mortem Press bestseller, “Rabbits in the Garden,” and her edgy YA series, “The Darla Decker Diaries.” More information on her published and forthcoming fiction can be found at JessicaMcHughBooks.com.
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