Fear of a Female Planet – what horror fiction tells us about men and women

women scaredThere’s been a pungent smell of misogyny in the air this week – a musky odour that’s hung low over Twitter and the mainstream media as women speak up about the often violently sexist abuse they receive online or in the real world.

In my day job, in a predominantly female primary education system, I’ve been fortunate not to encounter explicit sexism. I’m aware though that there are pockets of low-level mistrust and belittling of women in education technology circles, and have sat at conferences where men near me have debated the attractiveness of the (female) speaker in unsavoury terms.  In one particularly nasty incident, Badger received a text from an advisor friend of his – someone who’s climbed the greasy pole of success by praising collaboration and equality of opportunity – commenting on the blow-job lips of a (highly successful, very well thought of) woman he was having lunch with. It leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth, no pun intended.

If you were to apply the Everyday Sexism or Shouting Back hashtags in discussing horror fiction and cinema, your fingers would soon be numb from repeated use. There are far too many authors and filmmakers following Edgar Allan Poe’s maxim from The Philosophy of Composition – that the death of a beautiful woman is ‘the most poetical topic in the world’. It’s not just the usual suspects such as Dario Argento and (the late) Richard Laymon; it’s still common currency in mainstream horror to linger all too long on the destruction of a woman’s body in a way that reduces that body to an object to be defiled. Every week, iTunes adds to its library an endless stream of pulp nonsense such as Love Bite, Siren and The Wicked.

I’m hedging my bets here by using the terms ‘mainstream’ and ‘horror’. Within the cannon of ghostly (rather than horror) writers, there are some nuanced, subtle works by both male and female authors e.g. Susan Hill and John Harwood. But the traditional world of horror is a male dominated world – it was difficult to find hard statistics, but Mandy’s Morgue of Horror blog states that “Rue Morgue, one of the top horror publications, has a readership of 60% male versus 40% female while its competitor, Fangoria, has a male readership of 79% and a female readership of only 21%. Statistics show that the genre is more popular among men and when looking closely at the two magazines, it is apparent that more men are writing about horror than females.”

Why is this? It’s too simplistic to use the old divisions – to say that women write (and enjoy reading) tales of psychological suspense, mainly in a domestic settings – from The Yellow Wallpaper to Beyond Black; while men like their stories soaked in blood and gore. There are too many exceptions to this – Rosemary’s Baby was written and filmed by men, but remains one of the creepiest evocations of unease, using a woman’s deepest fears against her. Likewise, the work of Poppy Z. Brite, Nancy A. Collins and others shows that women can be just as visceral as male writers, and the Ax Wound site is a recent example of women writing horror for a feminist age.

I think it’s true to say that there was, in the 70s and 80s, a golden age of sadistic, misogynist horror fiction that objectified, violated and debased women – Richard Laymon is the standout here – was a way for some male writers to address the changing social order. The louder the chime of female voices became in the working, media and cultural worlds, the more uneasy some men became.

When thinking about this post, I re-read some of Carol J. Clover’s ‘Men, Women and Chain Saws’, her 1992 study of horror films and viewer identification with the ‘final girl’ – the intelligent, virginal, honest female whose inherent goodness served as a shield for the nastier excesses of men. It depresses me now as it did when I first read it – while I wouldn’t categorise myself as a horror fan (ghostly creepiness is more my thrill) – it still seems to me that the genre is trying to shake off the bloody hand of male domination, both in art and in life. Recent films such as Faye Jackson’s Lump  and the Soska’s Dead Hooker in a Trunk are using the language of traditional sadistic horror, but subverting them to reflect a female gaze – however, the horror community is being slow to accept the move away from black t-shirted boys making nasty films and often ignores the role women play as readers and writers,

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