Women and Horror: Is There a Problem or is it Just the Genre?

Published February 25, 2013 by admin

So one of the questions I’ve been asked off and on, whether on Twitter or at panels I’ve mediated on the topic of women in horror is one that slightly surprises me. “Is there really a need to even address the need for recognizing women in the horror genre? There really isn’t a problem, is there?”

Pushing my immediate reaction aside, let’s play a game. For just a moment, I want you to forget about all the awesome women I’ve mentioned this month. forget about my influences, forget about the authors who have given their opinions about horror, the ladies who obviously love it. Now riddle me this.

Who’s your favorite horror writer in general?

Name the three horror writers that pop into your head first.

Now name a female horror writer that is not Anne Rice or Poppy Z. Brite. No googling, no going back to my archives, no looking on Amazon. None of that.

How’d you do?

Part of the thing is that the horror genre is slowly being absorbed into sub-categories, itself. There’s a movement of reclassification going on. Things that were once horror are suddenly urban fantasy, dark fantasy, paranormal fiction, supernatural fiction, sci-fi, and who knows what else. Horror in general is being shelved with general fiction in stores. I get that it’s confusing. There also seems to be a push to make the literary genre match what’s on screen, especially with a lot of indie titles I’m seeing over the past three years are so. There’s more intent to shock and follow narrative formulas. Some examples I’ve seen don’t fall into splatterpunk or anything else that I could really name…it’s more or less like reading a B-movie horror script in narrative form. That’s cool, I’m sure there’s an audience for that, but that also doesn’t mean you need to reorganize a whole genre to fit the current mold.

I’ve chatted about this with Sumiko Saulson in the comments section, and I think she’s onto something. It almost seems like people are trying to preserve women’s reputations by calling them sci-fi or urban fantasy authors. This is made even more difficult by the fact that like a lot of good books, horror titles usually do fall into a few different categories. Anne Rice covers historical areas as well as horror, you could argue that Rachel Klien and Shirley Jackson are a little more Gothic, and then there’s Mary Shelley…

I wasn’t aware of it until this weekend, but I’ve seen this argument come up in a few places. Some people are now arguing that Frankenstein is more of a Sci-Fi title and not a horror title. Granted, there are definite science fiction elements in the book. No argument there. Still, though, it is a dark book that not only explores science, but the place of a soul in the world and the nature of creation and control. It covers a lot of ground, plus it involves obvious horror elements. It’s been a horror staple for ages.

I’m not against it being called out for science fiction elements, but this is a horror book. The story goes (whether it’s true or not, I couldn’t tell you) that it was written around the time as others in her circle were talking about writing frightening stories. This was around the time of the Gothic movement when a lot of other horror/frightening elements were just starting to find their footing. Polidori’s The Vampyre was conceived from this same conversation. Now if I have my information wrong, I apologize, but that’s what I’ve heard and what I’ve come to understand about the general time frame.

Not only that, but I’ve seen many, many spin offs of this story in horror-centric comic collections, anthologies, short story collections, novels, and on and on. You’re talking about suddenly calling foul on one of the staples of the horror genre.

My thought process is this: no one’s taking a look at True Blood, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, Dresden Files, Anita Blake, and anything else and deciding that Dracula should be re-classified as urban fantasy. So of all the titles, why is this discussion going on about Mary Shelley.

To modernize it, I’ve had to go looking for a lot of what I consider horror titles. Tanith Lee comes up in a lot of lists of women horror writers, but I’ve also seen her classified as dark fantasy or fantasy. Anne Rice comes up in a few places, and Rachel Klein’s The Moth Diaries is a title that I’ve heard referred to as Gothic, not horror.

So is it that our definition of horror is changing? Is IT now urban fantasy? Is Clive Barker not a horror writer but something else? Is The Walking Dead not really horror, but actually post-apocalyptic?  Is it that we need to talk about what actually fits in the genre as a whole again, or is it a gender thing?

I personally think it’s a little of both. I feel like yes, you can classify things in a multitude of ways and that’s fine. You almost have to do that to get your title in front of readers these days, especially if you’re not with a large house publisher. People definitely sometimes link horror to more pulpy titles, for better or worse.

But I also feel that Sumiko made a point when she commented that it’s as if people list women’s titles under other genres to keep their reputations as classy. Never mind that there’s a lot of blood and gore and sex in a lot of urban fantasy, too. Never mind that the stories are just as dark no matter how they’re classified. I personally don’t see any shame in being a horror writer. I love the genre. I fully admit to writing and reading it, and even those works of mine that aren’t horror-oriented can have horror elements. I let people know it, and I wear that badge proudly. I judge my writing prowess by the stories I’m putting down on paper and the genres I feel they fall into, not by what’s in my underpants. But I’ve also had to occasionally clarify to people that yes, my vampire story is a horror story, even though it’s a vampire and set in a historical setting. Yes, there are horror elements in my urban fantasy book but I consider it urban and dark fantasy as much as horror because of the settings and elements.

To put this in perspective, let me just say this. Even me, a reader and writer who LOVES the horror genre, had to go looking for lists of women horror authors. And I’m amazed at those that I haven’t read – well-known or not as well-known. I don’t know if there’s an answer, or if the whole genre needs to have a sit down and figure out what it is again. It’s one of those discussions that leads to a bunch of other related topics that could take hours or days to discuss.

So yeah, is there really a problem?

I dunno, is there?

How many women horror writers can you name?

And if there’s not a problem, then why are we finding the need to have a month set aside to recognize women in the horror genre, whether it be writers, actors, film makers, makeup artists, or otherwise?

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17 comments on “Women and Horror: Is There a Problem or is it Just the Genre?

  • Out and proud female horror writer here! As a committee member for the AHWA, I found it quite easy to name female horror writers (my fave being Kaaron Warren). I write horror, I write fantasy (urban and contemporary — how’s that for a sub-sub classification?), I write post-apocalyptic, I write steampunk… *sighs* – I WRITE HORROR. Please don’t feel the need make me ‘classy’ by ‘catering to my delicate sensibilities’, as I said, out and proud horror writer here (boobs or no boobs!) 😀

    • Very, very cool! And I love it – I totally agree – there’s no reason why we shouldn’t own being horror writers! Female horror writers rock! And I’ll definitely have to look into Kaaron Warren now! 🙂

  • Is it weird that the horror writers that came to mind for me were all women? Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris and Laurell K Hamilton. I don’t like Stephen King, so he didn’t pop into my head first. Then when you said don’t name Anne Rice, I added Mary Shelley.

    • See, I’ve been called out on counting Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton, because technically they’re classified as urban fantasy (I know, I know). At least with Laurell K. Hamilton, in the past year every time I’ve seen notice of her on con panels she’s listed as urban fantasy author. I’m not sure what Charlaine Harris is – before True Blood went on TV the vampire romance authors didn’t really want to get behind her to a point (so I heard), and she wasn’t strictly horror, so I believe she’s lumped in with urban fantasy as well, though with the TV series being so popular, that may have changed.

      • In my opinion, which is worth about as much as the paper it isn’t written on (hehe), but those sub-genres are just fancy names for horror. A rose by any other name is still a rose.

      • LOL, I know. I definitely agree with you – I consider Gaiman and even Barker to be as much horror as dark fantasy, but apparently all the lines are being redrawn so no one knows what’s going on. Great time to be a writer,

  • “Even me, a reader and writer who LOVES the horror genre, had to go looking for lists of women horror authors.”

    This sentence in particular rang a bell for me. I’ve been doing a blog series on women in horror comics for WiHM and that’s the exact thought I had that set me on the path of this project in the first place. “Why can’t I think of many women who do horror comics?”

    Great post! I think you really hit on something there with the evolving genres. I feel like there’s still this weird stigma about being a “horror fan” that makes people want to call it something else. It’s really easy to do that with all the genre crossover!

    • Totally agree. I’ve been reading a lot of the Creepy archives lately, and found myself starting to look for women writers and artists. So far I’ve found one name that keeps showing up, and I’m still looking for others. For better or worse, I think unless an author has been already established as horror like Stephen King, we’re going to see a lot less of any authors being labeled as horror authors. I don’t get what the deal is, though. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a genre. Horror doesn’t refer to one set formula or one set aspect of the genre – there are a lot of facets to horror, both low-brow and high-brow, if you really want to get into it. But you’re right, I think a lot of people have started backing away from it, fearing that that makes them less established or less of something. It’s odd. On the other hand, I personally like crossing a lot of genres, but it has nothing to do with not wanting to be associated with one genre over another. That just happens to be how my ideas work, lol

  • As an (aspiring) author, I don’t believe horror is a genre, so much as a feel that can permeate many other genres. And the presence of vampires or werewolves does not automatically make something horror in my opinion either.

    • Oh, I agree that the presence of paranormal or supernatural or preternatural stuff doesn’t mean it’s horror, especially now that fantasy and romance have holds on those same creatures, as well. Your concept of horror as a feel and a genre is fascinating, and I agree that that’s what it seems to be turning into. It seems like films are more easily classified as horror than books and stories these days, though I think in the past there are some really clear works of fiction that you couldn’t necessarily classify as other things, but that may just be because they’ve long been perceived as horror (like Dracula) or they’ve been marketed as horror very, very well (IT).

  • If you’re looking for great female Aussie horror writers, check out Kaaron Warren, Joanne Anderton, Kirstyn McDermott, Margo Langan, Felicity Dowker… that’s a great list to start!

    I also agree with Rachel that horror is an emotion, and tapping into that (whether it be physically, psychologically, or tapping into the deconstruction of faith, culture and/or society), delivers a heightening of horror that can reach a greater audience.

    • I will definitely check those authors out! And I agree that horror is severely generalized as a genre – it has a lot of reach in a lot of different ways, so maybe an emotion is a better way to define it.

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