Welcome back to Part Two of our Women in Horror Month Roundtable series! Last week, I talked with my amazing interviewees about their background in horror and what Women in Horror Month means to them. Today, we discuss favorite horror characters and the recent works by female creators that didn’t get as much attention as they deserved.
So let’s take it away!
Growing up, who were your favorite female characters in horror? How, if at all, did your early experiences with horror shape you as the storyteller you are today?
V. CASTRO: I am Mexican American so La Llorona was the first female in horror for me. From childhood you are told she will take you away if you misbehave.
My culture has a strong oral tradition with regards to folklore, music and the indigenous Mexican religion which is a very bloody one. We worshipped death and the sun. I like to incorporate both into my writing. I love stories within a story.
TERI.ZIN: Without a doubt, Angela Bassett’s character Mace in Strange Days is absolutely number one. Strong, vulnerable, whoops ass, asks for and deserves love and respect. Just an incredible character. Next would definitely be Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in the entire Alien franchise. Though these two examples fall into science fiction, there is a horror element to both that is sometimes ignored due to the caliber of the films. Horror never fully gets the love it deserves.
LISA QUIGLEY: I am not the typical horror fan/writer who grew up watching EVERY SINGLE HORROR MOVIE EVER or who even really KNEW I was a horror fan. I was a teen in the 90s, and so I did watch a lot of horror movies…in addition to lots of other movies. My taste was eclectic and I loved everything from comedies to rom-coms to action/adventure to chick flicks to horror to teenage films to sci-fi to….you get the idea. My best friend and I would browse the shelves of Blockbuster or Hollywood Video for hours before we finally made our random selections. So, while I watched a wide variety of different movies, there isn’t really a single female character in horror that I can pinpoint from any film that made an impression on me. And the one I can pinpoint is probably not one anyone would expect (or even remember.)
As a pre-teen/early teen, I watched this show on the Disney channel called So Weird. It wasn’t horror, per se. I guess if I had to describe it, it was sort of like X-Files for kids. The premise: a widowed mother is a touring musician (played by Mackenzie Phillips) and she has her two kids (plus some roadies and their kids) on tour with her. They live out of the tour bus and hotels, never in one place for long. The story is from the POV of Fiona (Fi) Phillips, who is extremely smart and nerdy, and has her own website (a novelty back then!) Fi is super into paranormal phenomena, not the least because her dad has died. In every single town they visit, Fi encounters something “weird”—ghosts, time travel, UFOs, and more. It was spooky and unsettling and I loved it. But more than that, I loved Fi. She was determined, intelligent, and focused, keyed in the way many around her were not. Her family often didn’t believe her, but many times she saved their lives without them even realizing it. She was fierce and fearless and I absolutely adored her.
Even today, my horror interests veer toward the weird and unusual, rather than overt horror. I am interested in the edges of things, the slightly off-kilter, the unnerving. Like Fi, the women and girls in my stories are their own heroes. They don’t need boys to save them.
MACKENZIE KIERA: When I was younger, I was allowed to watch some very light, maybe not even true horror. I think Tremors was my first monster movie? My parents figured all they were shielding me from was some rough language and a giant worm, so that one I maybe saw at 9 or 10? Tremors taught me that women could be the smart scientists, and that a lot of horror was made to be laughed at and enjoyed. Think the next one was maybe Alien? Ripley is a solid hero. Tough, smart, ballsy women were encouraged in my house, so I really don’t accept anything less from my female characters today. My favorite one currently is Nancy from the first Nightmare on Elm Street. She’s fantastic.
LARISSA GLASSER: My first idols were mostly in Science Fiction and fantasy, actually: Barbarella, Taarna from Heavy Metal, and of course Linda Carter as Wonder Woman. Mostly because they were powerful and had independent strengths that they made seem effortless. I got into Horror after that, the first thing I remember watching was “Terror in the Aisles,” a kind of documentary overview about horror films. From there I discovered Laurie Strode (Halloween), Ellen Ripley (Alien), and Sarah Roberts (The Hunger). They resonated with me even more. But where were the trans women? Oh, there ended up being plenty– as maniacs, victims, or punchlines. That scared me most of all when I was a kid, because I loved my family and didn’t want to be seen as a monster. But when I grew older and more independent, finished school, I proved to myself and needed to be independent like those characters who shaped me. It took me a long time, and I’m still processing a lot of that conflict. I think what I want to accomplish now in my work is to focus on trans women as having agency. I wrote the protagonist in F4 as someone who saves lives against an inter-dimensional terror. Although I don’t plan on recycling that character or story, I want to continue building stronger female characters I’d have liked to have seen when I was a kid.
MICHELLE RENEE LANE: Those are excellent questions, and not as easy to answer as they might seem. Because I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, there weren’t a lot of strong female characters in horror fiction and films to admire. Looking back at most of the films I watched as a kid, the depictions of women were extremely sexist and violence against women was a popular form of entertainment in most genres, including romantic comedies. So these questions are really making me think, which is good.
I watched a lot of slasher movies as a kid, Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Terror Train (1980), Happy Birthday to Me (1981), Motel Hell (1980), Black Christmas (1974), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), just to name a few. Cable TV and neighborhood video stores enabled an entire generation to immerse itself in horror films like no other generation before it. At first glance, these films seem to be telling different stories, but there are some genre-specific plot and character tropes that are hard to ignore, especially in the #metoo era. While these films are extremely sexist in their depictions of women, they also gave us final girls, which I believe inadvertently created a sense of empowerment for female horror fans. I mean running through the woods while scantily clad and tripping over your high heels isn’t very empowering, but if you’re the lone survivor of a machete-wielding psycho’s killing spree, then maybe you aren’t as weak and dumb as the filmmaker tried to portray you.
Aside from final girls, like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween and Terror Train, I will always have a special place in my heart for Carrie White. The original 1976 film is my favorite adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. If you haven’t read Carrie, I highly recommend listening to the audiobook read by Sissy Spacek.
To answer the second part of your question, these films inspired me to write strong female characters. Unless I’m writing erotica, none of my female characters run around scantily clad, and they have more control over what happens to them in the narrative even if they are at the mercy of evil forces. Watching slasher films made me conscious of how women are depicted in film, but reading novels written by women of color like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Octavia Butler, and Jewelle Gomez gave me the confidence to write horror fiction in my own voice about women who look like me.
ERIN SWEET AL-MEHAIRI: I can’t answer this question well as I was not allowed to experience much, if any, horror growing up unless it was in school. My mom and dad don’t believe in anything horror and I wasn’t allowed to read or watch. My parents still don’t support my dark fiction writing and they make fun of me or are scared for me if I have something with a raven on it or a skeleton/skull or the word Stephen King comes up. It’s sad really. Horror has helped me so much to heal from so many traumas.
I was able to experience in school Edgar Allan Poe and fell in love with his stories, as well as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which is one of my favorite stories of all time. It changed my life. It allowed me to know who I am in terms of humanity. It made me love literature and want to write. Poe, too, became an early influence. To this day, I feel they have shaped my stories as I write with humanity and a female depth as Shirley Jackson and I channel Poe techniques. I wrote my woodpecker story in Breathe. Breathe. in the vein of “The Tell Tale Heart.”
However, I’m mostly shaped by the literature I was allowed, for instance fantasy. Because I wasn’t allowed to read scary Stephen King, I was allowed to read Eye of the Dragon, which was my first by him because it’s fantasy. I fell in love. I devoured The Dark Tower then too. I read Mother Earth Father Sky by Sue Harrison, which in a way, had its own horror inflicted on women within its pages. My parents didn’t think of this as horror – but the atrocities to Native American women certainly were (to any women are). Her book and characters were major influences on me.
One thing my mom did let me have when I was young was things about witches. I’m still pondering this today (realizing for years now some nature/water witch prowess in myself) and why. But I had Tilly the Witch. I still love that children’s book. I will read anything about witches for sure and they, as well as nature, influence my writing a lot whether spoken or unspoken. I’ve written a few short stories. I enjoy reading non-fiction and fiction about witches. We are mothers of the earth, we are mothers of the sky, we are mothers of horror. Aren’t we?
Well, anyway… so yes fantasy, historical fiction, sci-fi, mysteries like Agatha Christie (somehow murders were ok haha) it all comforted me while awaiting the day I could read horror, but eventually they had me so scared of it, I was too afraid to read more than Stephen King unless it was a classic work. I laugh at this now. So yes, when I started my own business 11 years ago, and made time for more reading and writing and started the blog, I thought I’d write a children’s book and an historical novel. I’d always written poetry and wanted to write it more. I started writing about my trauma from abusive marriage, rape, illness, death and it all started meshing with my love of mystery, fantasy, monsters and spending a childhood alone in the woods with books, and it became horror writing.
Let’s take a moment to shine a light on a few great works that perhaps didn’t get the praise that they deserved. What are your favorite horror stories or books by female authors that were released over the past few years but that you wish would have gotten more attention?
V. CASTRO: I loved The Hunger by Alma Katsu. ANYTHING by Tananarive Due. Linda Addison is also an incredible talent. In general, I think all women in horror do not get their due. I grew up with Stephen King (read most of his books) and love his writing, but I’m tired. I’m tired of seeing anthologies with mostly men or not a single woman of color. Women of color are still very underrepresented across the board. I am curating a book bundle and it has been a struggle to find Latinas with novel length works of horror.
TERI.ZIN: Jessica Guess (Mama Tula; Mommy; upcoming: Cirque Berserk) is a brand new writer with whom I attended VONA in 2017. Incredibly talented. Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories; just about everything that comes out of Fiyah Magazine is, well, Fiyah, lol. Danny Lore is a fantastic talent. I attended Viable Paradise (22) with them and they are just amazing. L. H. Moore. Chesya Burke. Matter of fact, pick up the anthology Sycorax’s Daughters. It features 28 Black women writing horror. (I’m in it, too!)
LISA QUIGLEY: I’m just going to list some of my favorites. They may have gotten more attention than I’ve realized, but I still think they’re all worth mentioning and reading.
Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter
To Be Devoured by Sara Tantlinger
Little Dead Red by Mercedes M. Yardley
Husk by Rachel Autumn Deering
I Am Not Your Final Girl by Claire C. Holland
The Writhing Skies by Betty Rocksteady
The Possession of Natalie Glassgow by Hailey Piper
Dear Laura by Gemma Amour
MACKENZIE KIERA: ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME by Julie Berry is the hill I will die on. While it’s not straight horror, it has horror elements mixed around with a strong feminist bend. I don’t know why we all weren’t talking about how amazing, how perfect that book was (is).
LARISSA GLASSER: I need to say right out of the gate that although I don’t consider her
a genre writer at all, I’ll sing praises for Torrey Peters at every opportunity. Reading her work convinced me to put trans narratives front and center in my own life, because I also have a lot of unresolved shit and the only way for me to deal with it, other than therapy, is to channel
these issues through story. Torrey’s writing is unrelenting. This lady actually made me want to take writing more seriously. She confronts the darkness and our own contradictions with a perfect balance of vulnerability and assertiveness that I haven’t yet found in another trans writer. I’ll find tons more voices, I’m sure. To me it’s worth it. Trans women’s experiences are denigrated so needlessly. But Torrey went the DIY route and became really successful and dare I say canonical. She’s got a new novel called Detransition, Baby coming out from Random House in August 2020.
For horror women authors who have also helped me along, I’d go with The Sisters of Slaughter (Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason)–their book Mayan Blue totally fucked me up emotionally and I keep re-reading it. Gory and grindy, full of sorrow. Also from the moment I first read Damien Angelica Walters, I was immediately hooked. She really stabs you in just the right places. I love Farah Rose Smith for her evocation of the 19th century decadent tradition, and definitely Victoria Dalpe for her versatility and for the cinematic nature of her work. These are just a few. My list would be super-long.
MICHELLE RENEE LANE: I recently read The Deep (2019) by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes after stumbling across it in the Goodreads Awards nominations page. It has a slow start, but it is an interesting fantasy novel that tells the story of “the water-breathing descendants of African slave women tossed overboard have built their own underwater society-and must reclaim the memories of their past to shape their future.” In a word, it’s brilliant. I’ve wanted to read a story about Black mermaids my whole life so I couldn’t wait to read this book. And, bonus, it addresses slavery and how our ancestors’ traumas are passed down generation to generation through genetics and memories. I’m hoping it gets more attention in 2020, and it would make a beautiful film.
ERIN SWEET AL-MEHAIRI: Anything by Kristin Dearborn. She’s a great writer. Woman in White is wonderful. Sacrifice Island. I believe both re-released now from Crossroads Press. Crossroads is great and publishes a lot of good stuff, but we don’t hear enough about the books, this being one. Also, Stolen Away by her from Raw Dog Screaming Press is so good. I wish Kristin’s name was known more and appreciated by readers – she is well-loved among the writing circuit of course. She’s a great person.
And that’s it for Part Two in our Women in Horror Roundtable! Head on back here next for part three, as I talk more with these awesome women!
Happy reading, and happy Women in Horror Month!