Why Women Love Horror

Article by Lauren A. Forry | 05 Feb 2016

With February being the 7th Annual Women in Horror Month, US author Lauren A. Forry looks into the attraction of the genre. One that's part of her life and career – from M. Night Shyamalan film sets to the pages of her new gothic novel Abigale Hall.

I have always loved horror. I was the kid who spent her free time writing stories about blobs that ate children on camping trips. If a princess appeared, she lived in a haunted castle. I read James Howe’s vampire rabbit tale Bunnicula several times over and owned every single book in the Goosebumps children's horror series. The first fan letter I ever wrote (aged 9) was to The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson. But growing up, I seemed to be the only girl interested in horror. I thought it was because of my father – a genre-loving FBI special agent who used to make his own Super 8 sci-fi/horror films. However, once I got older, I discovered that I was far from the only woman who loved the genre. There is, in fact, a large, active community of female horror fans. I’ve met them through my own writing (which still focuses on disappearing children and haunted mansions), and through working as a PA on M. Night Shyamalan films in my native Pennsylvania. So when anyone ever asks me, 'Why do women love horror?' my first reaction is, 'Why shouldn’t we?' But if I ignore the gender bias behind the question, there is a deeper answer. Women love horror for the same reasons anyone loves horror – it allows us to identify with characters and themes that represent our personal experiences and unspoken fears.

Growing up, I strongly identified with Dana Scully because there were very few female heroes in mainstream pop culture at the time. In so many genres, women were – and still are – cast as the damsels in distress, waiting to be rescued by the male hero. I’ve always preferred stories where women get to save themselves, and horror is a genre where women often get the same chance offered to Scully – to be the hero, not the victim. I wrote my gothic horror thriller Abigale Hall with that mantra in mind: the women of Abigale Hall, heroes and villains alike, would drive the story. Why? Because I wanted to see myself in those characters. I’m no damsel, and most of the women I know aren’t either.

When discussing representation, it cannot be understated how important it is for a reader to be able to identify with the protagonist – to see a character and think, 'That’s me.' When that happens, it makes the story that much more powerful. Horror is a genre, like romance, where women often lead the story. Think of films like Halloween, Scream, It Follows.

Horror literature, too, is often female-driven. Justin Cronin’s The Passage Trilogy depicts a post-apocalyptic world where virus-born vampires have destroyed most of North America. Central to the plot are Amy, a little girl who is the key to defeating the vampires, and Alicia Donadio, a ruthless young fighter. Amy possesses many feminine qualities, while Alicia takes on more traditionally masculine characteristics. Together, they represent the best and worst of what it means to be human, not just women, and both are as pivotal to the defeat of the vampires as their male counterparts. The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer also uses several female protagonists and antagonists to drive the plot. The first book, Annihilation, exclusively features women as the main characters. These women, known only by their job title, explore the terrifying uninhabited area known as Area X. What is wonderful about VanderMeer’s characters is that their gender doesn’t matter. They are fully-fledged, complicated individuals who happen to be women, which makes them all the more believable.

Any good horror story is used as a way to explore topics that may be difficult for some to discuss openly. Because horror often features female characters so prominently, it allows for the exploration of issues concerning women. Take marriage, for instance. You legally bind yourself to a stranger and must share a home and a bed, all while never knowing what secrets that person is keeping from you. It’s terrifying, and many horror tales explore this experience, including Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. The naïve narrator of Rebecca strains to escape the shadow of Manderley’s previous, controlling mistress. The Stepford Wives depicts what happens when wives fail to live up to their husband’s expectations. It is not the women the men love; they desire a perfect wife. In Rebecca, the narrator and her husband are able to defeat the spell cast by Rebecca and live a happy life in an equal partnership. The protagonist in Stepford is less fortunate – murdered by the men of the town and replaced with an artificial replica. When married, society expects women to behave in a particular way. Through both these novels and others, women can identify with these burdened wives and reflect on their own expectations of what marriage should be.

Now imagine this scenario: an alien creature is implanted inside you – feeding off the nutrients of your body, causing drastic physical and emotional changes – only, when violently removed, to be completely dependent on you or else it will die. This is motherhood. It’s a miracle. Like marriage, it’s also terrifying. In Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the governess is not a mother, but when she is put in charge of a pair of children, she sees suspicion in everything they do, becoming so frightened that she ends up murdering the boy. The governess represents a woman unable to cope with the responsibility of motherhood, a fear held by many women, mothers or not. But mention your doubts about being a mother, or even wanting to be a mother, and watch the looks you receive. Many still see it as unnatural for a woman to deny or fear motherhood, but women deal with these thoughts every day.

Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is the classic tale of the horrors of pregnancy. Women are able to identify with Rosemary – her desire to establish a good life with her husband, only to see those dreams spiral into her greatest nightmare. She becomes a mother, but a mother to Satan’s child. In Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, the Woman, when alive, was denied her chance to be a mother because others doubted her ability. She then had to watch her only child drown, unable to save him, failing him as a mother. As a ghost, she assuages her guilt and takes revenge by stealing the lives of other children.

There is nothing wrong with not wanting to raise children. There is nothing wrong with wanting to raise children. Not everyone may want marriage, but it’s fine if you do. Horror gives women a safe space to think about these issues and others and say, 'Yes, sometimes I feel that way, and it’s okay.' It also allows women to subvert such traditional gender roles. Stephen King’s Misery makes the writer Paul Sheldon submissive to the mentally unstable Annie Wilkes. Although Annie has a traditionally feminine career as a nurse, she defies her role by murdering patients and uses physical and mental abuse to bend Paul to her will. When seen from Annie’s point of view, the book becomes a violent revenge fantasy for women who have been controlled by men, and the story offers a glimpse of what it is like for a woman to be the aggressor, even if things don’t turn out so well for her in the end.

And that may be one of my favourite things about horror – the fact that not all endings are happy. Eleanor Vance from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was forced to be her crippled mother’s only carer, subject to her every whim. Upon her mother’s death, Eleanor tries to find strength through her visit to Hill House, but the house is too strong and Eleanor succumbs to its call, committing suicide by crashing her car. In the deliriously brutal film The Descent, which, like Annihilation, features only women, no one – no matter how hard they fight – makes it out alive. Or do they? And isn’t that ambiguity wonderful? The lack of resolution in horror more accurately reflects real life than the fairytales of womanhood we’re often told to believe.  

I love horror for its weirdness, its scares, its shocks, its monsters. I love it because there is something more lurking just beneath the pretty façade, something unexpected and bold and quite often terrifying, just like so many women I know. 

Lauren A. Forry was awarded the Faber and Faber Creative Writing MA Prize for her dissertation, which has now become her debut novel, Abigale Hall – out in April 2016, published by Black & White, RRP £7.99