Women in Horror


L. Marie Wood

Horror fiction, in and of itself, has never been regarded as an accepted genre by literary fiction enthusiasts. The content offends practical sensibilities; the fantastical aspect to which the reader must adapt to enjoy work in this genre requires many allowances. Authors in the genre have never wholly been taken seriously, and over the centuries, only a few stand out in memory. These authors, namely Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King, brought fresh ideas to the table; they made people look at horror in a new light. Stephen King, above all, brought commercial validity to a genre that had previously been regarded as pulp, influencing writers in other genres to incorporate the supernatural in their prose. As such, Stephen King is synonymous with horror and is, more often than not, the only horror author who mainstream readers can name. Largely, other authors in the horror genre go unread by the mainstream community, if they are recognized at all.

Some names are resurrected under the guise of the classics—Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, most notably. The recycling of horror movie themes helps in that vein, allowing literalists to indulge in reading the original text upon which the screenplay was based. But the group that makes up the intricate blanket of horror goes unseen. The likes of Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker, and the lesser known Robert McCammon, Douglas Clegg, and Joe Lansdale remain important to a subset of society (the horror community) but register a mere blip on the screen for most readers, if at all. Female authors suffer a worse fate. They remain unknown, in large part, to mainstream readership as well as to the horror community. While a small few break out and gain notoriety for a time (Anne Rice, Tananarive Due, L. A. Banks), many write in relative obscurity (Kathe Koje, Tina Jens).

Throughout history, women have played the role of victim in horror stories written by male and female authors alike. A comfortable alcove to place female characters, writers became used to the power struggle between good and evil with a woman in the middle as the coveted prize. Rafferty stated, “…a woman’s place in horror has been pretty well defined: she’s the victim, seen occasionally and heard only when she screams.”

In the early 1800s, a new style of fiction aptly termed gothic horror due, in part, to the dark settings used in its prose, was written by women for women, unseating the ‘woman as victim’ trope for willing readers. Crafty escapes from diabolical antagonists were offered to women who craved an exciting read. As Leslie stated, “Most of these writers were women and the intended audience was also female, with many novels appearing serialized in ladies’ magazines.” She goes on to note that, “… this early wave of gothic fiction established many of the tropes of the genre that still exist in horror fiction today.” While a woman is not credited as the original practitioner of gothic horror (Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto is widely considered to be the first gothic horror novel), Ann Radcliffe has been said to have legitimized the sub-genre with works such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and A Sicilian Romance. And then came Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818, a text that is widely considered a gothic novel and, as such, is the most well known, but one that is also considered science fiction. Indeed, Shelley is considered a founder of the science fiction genre with this groundbreaking work. How, then, did the shift from women as victims to women as literary powerhouses, back to women as victims and underrepresented authors occur?

Many trace the lack of female authors represented in the horror genre to a catchall sub-genre called paranormal romance. Paranormal romance is unique within the horror genre in that its purpose is not, “…to evoke terror, but to present an impossibly romantic alternative to reality.” As such, this sub-genre straddles the line, belonging to both horror and romance, producing an unlikely tug of war.

Horror has been accused of sexism in the past, and with the relative exemption of female horror authors who write prose with the genre’s original intention in mind, this accusation is likely to recur in the future. As Rafferty indicated, “[Many female authors] don’t appear to be concerned, as true horror should be, with actually frightening the reader.” Does that assertion explain the disdain with which paranormal romance is regarded? Much has been made of the nature of the sub-genre, which focuses more on supernatural romance and relationships than the horrific. The material therein straddles the line between quiet horror and romance, the aspect designed to frighten the reader downplayed or rendered impotent. For example, the vampires in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series are passionate and loyal, only revealing their true nature when defending a particular human or each other. The books marginalize traditional vampire characteristics, such as the need to feed (and the brutal aspects of this practice), and their status as undead (the characteristics and emotions the vampires display are alarming lifelike). While creative license is an unwritten rule in fiction when utilizing an archetype, Twilight’s vampires are so different from historic and even recent depictions that fans of traditional horror prose find the books difficult to accept. Are female authors in the paranormal romance sub-genre considered horror authors at all? The demographic it appeals to—teenage girls—suggest that they are not.

Over the years, as paranormal romance has gained steam, female horror authors of every sub-genre have been shuttled into that box. Indeed, as Barnett of The Guardian stated, “The assumption is that a woman writing in the horror genre will be writing paranormal romance.” But there are many women writing other forms of horror: Sarah Langan in psychological horror and Lisa Tuttle in splatter punk, to name a few.

But is there more that affects how female authors are received than their being categorized in a cross sub-genre?

An opposing argument could be made. In a later article, Barnett suggested that, “Allegations of sexism are perhaps unfounded when leveled at the industry itself: the sheer numbers of women working not only as authors but also in the film industry and in publishing…suggest there is no glass ceiling on the creative side.” With the heightened acceptance of women in all societal roles, including industrial and military, the fact that many women are involved in the craft—writing, editing, teaching—is a feather in the proverbial cap. However, is that a product of the times? Does the need for bloggers, reviewers, and professionals in the field boost the number of women involved by necessity? Does the sheer number of women in the world compared to men—57 million more as reported in 2010—make it inevitable that more women would be working in the field?

If history has anything to do with the situation women find themselves in presently, one would not be surprised. Across the literary genres, published authors are (and have always been) predominately male. According to Crossref-it.info, ”In the ancient world, literacy was severely limited, and the majority of those who could write were male.”

There is a theory in circulation that women have been marginalized as authors because of original sin. Eve, regarded as the reason for original sin, in essence, created the playing field for women to be treated differently. Hence male dominance seems natural because the female is somehow not to be trusted with the task. What behaviors are being expressed to boys that cause this mindset to resonate across time, subconsciously if not consciously?

References to the lesser status of women are all around. They can be found in the Bible, in ancient texts, and in literature. Women have historically been considered sexual beings and when sexuality was taboo, so were women. Many cultures maintain that a distance be between male and female; their relationships are structured so that the women are subservient to men. As went life, so went literature. Female characters were periphery, as likely to be left out of a piece as not. While this trend gradually changed over time, it was slow going. From silent, milling bystanders, women became important to the storyline because of how the men in the tale reacted. “… [T]he novel depicted women as viewed by men, and the typical heroines were either paragons of virtue or of vice.” It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that women created work that made society take exceptional notice. The horror genre saw the likes of Ann Radcliffe change the way that women were viewed in horror fiction: her propensity toward advocating women’s rights in her work creating a form of reform through osmosis. She joined a handful of women (notably Jane Austen) who changed the face of fiction. Did those changes make an impact on how female horror authors are regarded in present day?

The questions posed in this section lead to the supposition that while women are viewed differently in this century than in times past, gender still plays a part in how their literary work is accepted. This is shown in published statistics, industry surveys, and a questionnaire conducted as research for this paper. Respectively, women continue to write and excel in their field, however their work is not reviewed as often as males. Per The Guardian, at The New York Times Review of Books, of the number of authors reviewed, “… 83% are men (306 compared to 59 women and 306 men), and the same statistic is true of reviewers (200 men, 39 women).” A survey conducted by VIDA Women in Literature reveals that female authors make less than male authors in the same genres. Ten people (five women and five men) were surveyed as part of the research for this paper. They were asked two questions, one of which was to name three authors. Some struggled with naming three, but of the three male respondents who met the criteria, only one named at least one female author.

A popular argument exists to explain the issue at hand. It states that female authors are not writing in genres that appeal overwhelmingly to men, therefore, men are not buying it. As Cruz aptly pondered, “As women, are we pigeon-holing female authors and creating subgroups for them, stunting their growth as writers?” The final question of the research questionnaire asked 10 people to name the genre they enjoyed reading most. Romance topped the list (3 of 10 responses). Science fiction and mystery made the list as well, among other genres. There was no consensus on genre among the male respondents, whereas 60 percent of the female respondents chose romance. None of the 10 respondents chose horror as their genre of choice. These results are further legitimized by the assertion made by Penny Sansevieri as quoted by Cruz, ”I really think the problem is that men are in stronger categories generally—thrillers, mystery, political thrillers, horror, suspense, etc.” These results bring another question to the forefront. If the statistics gathered by the National Endowment for the Arts report are correct, women buy and read more books than men. That reality should serve as a boon to genres within which female authors are predominately read, negating the subgroups created by individual interest and elevating their status in mainstream consumer markets. Why is this not occurring?

Is there a double standard? Can men and women of equal talent and similar style write about the same subject matter and be reviewed and, subsequently, received differently? The propensity for women to assume male pennames when they write in so-called stronger categories/genres begs the question. Are women relegated, in large part, to what has been termed chick lit or beach books (lighter material designed for fanciful escapism) if they are to be successful? Either that, or mask their work as that of a male? Finally, for the female author, is the horror genre too commercially unrewarding to claim? Many female authors who have written horror fiction merely dabble in it, coming to visit for a time, then moving on to greener pastures. Mary Shelley did the same as many contemporary female authors, offering a fantastic piece of work in Frankenstein and moving on to write in other genres. Gender appears to be a defining factor in the success of the female author.

Perhaps men push harder. In the mid to late 1970s, horror fiction made a surge. Authors found success in their released novel and, shortly thereafter, the film adaptation. A newcomer named Stephen King produced a different kind of horror fiction, one that was as believable as an anecdote told at a family gathering. His work resonated with people, scaring them deeper than they expected and keeping them wanting more. Many authors felt they could replicate his style and saturated the market with formulaic, predictable volumes. In the figurative shoving match for leverage, perhaps men gained an advantage.

There is a final reason for the marginalization of female authors in the horror genre, and this, perhaps is the most disturbing: the perception that women just can’t do it. Does society think that males write horror fiction better than women? Do they believe that women are too fragile to imagine unsettling horrors? If dark thoughts lurk in a woman’s mind, is it somehow improper (unladylike?) for them to be entertained and transposed onto a page for all to read? Is this mindset a socialized gender bias? Perhaps there is some merit to the latter. Miller states that, “Conventional wisdom among professionals in the children’s book business is that while girls will read books about either boys or girls, boys only want to read about boys.” Children often take on the characteristics of their parents and respond to what they see. While there is a place for inherent proclivity, much of early learning is parroting. If parents are buying books that are considered gender appropriate (based on societal rules for male and female behavior), children will gravitate to them naturally when they begin to make their own selections. As children age, their interests may change, but the notions of male and female behavior have solidified. Hence the interminable cycle.

An interesting connection exists: those who are more interested in reading literature written by a male were, more than likely, taught by a woman. According to Anderson, “A 2006 study by the National Education Association showed that preschool and elementary school children are taught by 75 percent more female than male teachers.” This trend, albeit with fluctuating percentages, has always existed. Students are more likely to be taught by women in all disciplines and at all grade levels. Is it more acceptable to learn how to write from a woman than to read a woman’s work? The answer to that question lies in many practices and mindsets that persevere in history and to date in not only gender, but also racial and cultural settings.

Women continue to write and publish around the world. While the US and UK produce most of the commercial horror fiction, female authors are influenced by the genre globally. Horror fiction is experiencing a lull in written form and an uptick in visual media as adaptations from past novels are created for movies and television, but that has not stopped the likes of Sara Pinborough and Helen Oyeyemi from producing stellar work in the genre. The horror genre itself is ailing—the change in layout at major bookstores reveals that truth. Horror is lumped in with Thriller, Mystery, and Suspense in some locales, and in other bookstores, the heading of Fiction covers all genres outside of the nonfiction bucket. This reduces the chance that a horror book by a new author might be selected if not deliberately sought out; layouts such as these require readers to know the name of the author they are looking for, as does online shopping.

While we watch the changing of an era, as bookstores close their doors in favor of online storefronts, one can’t help but wonder about the future of the horror genre and, by extension, the fate of the female horror author. Online presence provides for a wider audience with cheap prices and instant gratification in the form of a download, so perhaps, as demographic marketing of horror advances, more people will be willing to try horror written by women. The Internet may prove to be the venue where the playing field is leveled and gender is no longer a factor.